Good stories, then, enlarge our student's minds and hearts. They help them to shed their preoccupation with self and to see what they have the potential to give or do. In other words, stories not only nourish the imagination. They nourish the soul. — Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin
Every day our children go forth into a complex world where they are often faced with difficult decisions and situations. Moral Tales attempts to provide children with the spiritual and ethical tools they will need to make choices and take actions reflective of their Unitarian Universalist beliefs and values. As Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin suggest in their book, Building Character in Schools (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999), stories such as the ones woven throughout Moral Tales can activate and inform children's learning about how to make moral choices.
The first five sessions make up the Seeking Truth/Discernment unit of Moral Tales. These sessions introduce tools for discerning truth and justice in a complex world. Participants are encouraged to draw upon inner resources such as conscience, intuition and empathy; spiritual resources such as faith, prayer and forgiveness; and external resources that include wise teachers and the larger community.
The next six sessions constitute the What Would Love Do unit of Moral Tales. These sessions focus on the ways love calls us to act in the world with humans, other living beings and the Earth. Participants are introduced to spiritual practices that are grounded in love, including generosity, welcome, and nonviolence. Relationships among the participants in the group are reinforced as all are made welcome without prejudgments and participants are encouraged and guided to honor one another, and all people, in a deep and meaningful way. Love is extended to the Earth through learning about the importance of ecological balance.
The final five sessions introduce tools and attitudes that are necessary to bring goodness and justice into the larger world. Here participants explore responsibility, courage, persistence and cooperation. The aim of Moral Tales is to help raise children who have been provided with tools that will help them to discern what is right and true, to hear and follow the call of Love, and to turn their moral beliefs and ethical concerns into concrete action.
Each session has a central story in which participants meet real and fictional heroes and heroines who have displayed moral courage and spiritual greatness. They will hear about characters who have struggled, but who have chosen justice, goodness, and love. If you implement the Gems of Goodness Project (introduced in Session 2 and continued through the remainder of the program), children will have regular opportunities to create and share their own stories, in which they are actors for justice and goodness.
The stories in Moral Tales draw upon many of our Unitarian Universalist sources, portraying moral dilemmas and paths to goodness and justice through a variety of cultural and religious lenses. Yet every story resonates with Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes, which are intentionally integrated into the sessions. In this way participants will develop awareness and understanding of other religions as they strengthen their own identity as Unitarian Universalists.
All sessions include hands-on activities to make learning accessible to individuals with various learning styles as well as structured exercises for questioning, reflecting and self-expression. In sessions that rely heavily on discussion or other modalities which emphasize verbal learning and expression, alternative activities are suggested which may work better for learners who are more active. Religious educators may feel free to craft each session using the activities that best match the learning styles of the children in their programs.
Each session of this program includes rituals such as sharing opening words, a chalice-lighting, centering in silence before hearing a story, and singing together, with the option of lighting a chalice or candles of joys and sorrows (Alternate Activity 1 in every session). Most young children love ritual, and the use of ritual in the sessions mirrors the use of ritual in family homes, in our congregations, in the wider Unitarian Universalist community, and beyond. These spiritual activities form an important element of the program. They familiarize children with specific practices which their families or your congregation may continue after the life of this program, and they provide a common experience for the group. Practicing rituals together builds community and reminds children of their connections to something deeper and more significant than their own experiences, wants, and needs.
An undertaking to teach children how to be "good" and "just" in just 16 weeks is indeed ambitious. This curriculum is not, nor could it be, absolutely inclusive or comprehensive. Infinite nuances of goodness and justice, as well as many spiritual tools for discerning and performing goodness and justice, exist beyond these sessions. However, it is our sincere hope that participants will begin to build a personal moral compass in this program. Their exploration of goodness and justice here, we hope, will ground participants in Unitarian Universalist ethical beliefs, moral values and spiritual practices that can not only transform the individual, but transform the world, as well.
Moral Tales will:
- Provide participants with an ethics- and faith-based framework for thinking about what it means to be just and good, introducing and reinforcing concepts such as interdependence, conscience, faith, empathy, forgiveness, compassion, awe, respect, non-violence, responsibility, courage, perseverance, cooperation, ecological balance, fairness, and being welcoming.
- Strengthen participants' Unitarian Universalist identity by demonstrating the connection between the choices we make in our lives and the beliefs and attitudes we hold as Unitarian Universalists, including our Principles
- Introduce participants to stories drawn from a range of our Unitarian Universalist Sources including Christian and Hebrew scripture; worldwide cultural and religious sources; and biographies of Unitarian Universalists and others who have demonstrated Unitarian Universalist values in their actions
- Provide explication and experiences to acquaint participants with some key tools and resources we use to search for truth and make moral decisions, including conscience, faith, prayer, empathy, and external help from wise others
- Nurture spiritual growth by fostering spiritual practices such as generosity, forgiveness, empathy, faith, non-violence, living in balance
- Empower participants as agents of justice and goodness by providing them with opportunities to share real life dilemmas and solutions — including their own, concrete actions — that reflect their learning in the Moral Tales sessions
- Encourage participants to be responsible, courageous, and persistent in working for goodness and justice in the world
- Foster the creation of a learning community in which everyone is respected, welcomed and honored, diversity is embraced, justice is practiced, and children can learn, grow and have fun together
- Promote participants' understanding of the world's interconnectedness, reinforcing cooperation, non-violence, responsibility, and balance as necessary to moral, ethical and spiritual health
A team of two or more adults should lead the Moral Tales program. Having two leaders present at all times helps assure child safety and optimum conditions for learning. While one leader implements an activity, the other can focus on logistics and children's engagement, behavior, and safety. A collaborative teaching style would be preferred, as some Moral Tales discussions and participatory storytelling activities will best be run by two adults. It may be useful for one person on the leadership team to take primary responsibility for the Faith in Action activities, most of which occur primarily outside regularly scheduled session time.
Ideally, co-leaders will be individuals familiar with Unitarian Universalist beliefs who have attempted, as adults, to intentionally translate those beliefs into lifestyles that reflect a quest for goodness and justice. It will be helpful if leaders are comfortable talking about morality with children. Leaders should be able to take a stand for particular virtues while acknowledging and accepting theological diversity within a discussion and within the group. Flexibility of thought along with moral integrity are important.
Several sessions call for the group to participate in the life of the congregation, for example, by participating in worship or in an outreach program. It will be helpful if your leadership includes at least one congregational member who is familiar with the rituals of the congregation.
Finally, the leaders of Moral Tales should enjoy stories. Ideally, leaders will be comfortable telling, rather than reading, the stories, although that is certainly not a requirement for effective learning to take place.
The Moral Tales program is designed for use with children in second and third grades. You may find it useful to think about the developmental norms for this age group. Not all children arrive at each developmental stage at the same time, but knowing what to expect overall from seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds can be quite helpful, especially to first-time leaders.
In her book Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd discusses developmental characteristics of school-age children. She notes that by age seven, children's learning disabilities and behavioral or psychological issues may have appeared and been identified. Individual learning styles and strengths may also be apparent. Children who need glasses often get their first pair around this age.
In a section on moral development, Hurd notes that the typical child in this age group is "passionately interested" in moral issues:
She seeks what is fair and right... By developing games with rules, playing sports, or creating or belonging to clubs, the school-age child practices figuring out what is fair... This play is practice for more generalized moral decision making.
In general, a child in second or third grade is:
- Able to use gross and fine motor skills, which are almost fully developed
- Influenced by media images and messages; beginning to compare him/herself to norms perceived as desirable
- Engaging in logical thinking based on "concrete operational" thinking
- Practicing cognitive skills of acquiring, storing, and retrieving information
- Developing his/her individual learning style, which may be auditory visual, sensory, and/or kinesthetic
- Showing his/her domain-specific intelligence, which may be verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and/or naturalist
- Finding self-esteem in his/her knowledge and his/her student identity
- Engaging peers; learning through mutual friendships
- Able to comprehend the perspectives of others
- Likely to engage in gender-segregated play
- Interested in his/her own racial, ethnic, and gender identity, and seeking affirmation of these identities from peers
- Learning and negotiating early understandings of social scripts about sexuality
- Aware of and able to apply the Golden Rule (treating others as he/she would wish to be treated)
- Energized by developing rules for play or work that ensure fairness
- Interested in personal moral issues and able to wrestle with moral dilemmas in relationships
- Aware of societal moral issues
- Interested in helping to solve community and world problems
- Showing interest in concrete aspects of faith and religion
- "Doing" religion or spirituality by participating in rituals, practices, and traditions
Hurd offers a variety of strategies that speak to these developmental considerations and may help you shape your sessions effectively. Some of these include:
- Provide for children's overall physical needs, including nutrition, exercise, and rest.
- Allow children to be active; avoid extended times of sitting and listening.
- Provide time for play and hands-on activities.
- Present challenges that promote children's use of their thinking skills.
- Support different learning styles.
- Encourage problem-solving and discussion; allow children opportunities to role-play to experience others' perspectives.
- Support children's natural impulse toward rule-making and peer-to-peer negotiation of what is fair.
- Allow time with like-identity peers; support or facilitate mixed-peer time, as well.
- Intervene appropriately against exclusion or bullying, yet affirm children's need to work out relational complexities as a part of their moral development.
- Recognize the unique needs that attend the identity development of children who may be multiracial, multiethnic, transgender, and/or a "minority" in another way.
- Offer children many ways to contribute to the community.
- Give opportunities to "do" religion and be part of a faith community.
- Welcome large spiritual questions; encourage questioning of religion.
- Support self-esteem; affirm the child's developing body and identity.
- Support the whole child as an individual and as a member of the group.
- Provide encouragement and love.
Integrating All Participants
By adapting activities or using alternate activities, you can help ensure that every session is inclusive of children with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles, food allergies, and other sensitivities or limitations. The program offers general guidance on adapting activities along with some resources for implementing inclusion. Within the sessions, some activities suggest specific adaptations under the heading, "Including All Participants."
As you plan your Moral Tales sessions, be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for children 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. Sessions 6, 9, 15, 16 and the Gems of Goodness celebration, if you have one, include food or food preparation activities. Make sure all of the children can eat the ingredients you plan to use, or adjust the recipe. You will also want to consider food allergies when planning a mid-session snack.
Each session 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 a group. As you begin to recognize different learning styles among the participants, let this information guide your selection of activities for each session.
You will often find the suggestion to bring out the "fidget objects" basket in the "Including All Participants" sections. This is a basket full of manipulable objects, such as pipe cleaners or clay, to keep restless hands and minds busy. It may be helpful to make fidget objects available if or when you feel some or all of the children are having difficulty sitting through longer periods of listening or discussion. Find more information about fidget objects in the "Before You Start" section of this Introduction. A full description of what they are and how to use them appears in "Leader Resources" in each session.
Some activity descriptions mention specific concerns or suggest adaptations under the heading "Including All Participants." Feel free to devise your own adaptations to meet any special needs you perceive. As the leader, you will know best how to provide a fully inclusive learning experience for the group. If you have questions about the accessibility or adaptability of a particular activity, please ask your director of religious education for advice.
A helpful resource book for inclusion in a religious education setting is Welcoming Children with Special Needs: A Guidebook for Faith Communities by Sally Patton (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004; out of print, available online).
Families are the primary influences on the faith and moral development of their children. As a program leader, you take on a special role: supporting families in your faith community to shape their children's Unitarian Universalist faith and moral development. By involving parents in the Moral Tales program, you can deepen the moral and spiritual experience for children and their families, preparing and encouraging them to work together for goodness and justice.
Each session offers Taking It Home resources including conversation topics and other ways for families to extend the session at home. These may include a family game, a family ritual, or links to informative and/or interactive websites. Exploring the session topics further at home will allow children and parents to practice the skills, personalize the concepts, and make connections among congregational life, home and family life, and life's daily challenges. Through these experiences, families deepen their experience of Unitarian Universalism. Adapt each session's Taking It Home section to reflect the activities the group will have engaged in and, if you like, to help families prepare for sessions yet to come. If you have an email address for each family, you may wish to provide Taking It Home as a group email, either before or immediately after the session. Or, you can print, photocopy, and distribute Taking It Home at the session's closing.
Invite families into your sessions. Adult or teen volunteers can be extremely helpful when you implement arts-and-crafts activities. Parents who bring musicianship, storytelling, or artistic skills into your sessions will help foster participants' sense of connection between their family and their religious education experience. The Faith in Action activities for each session offer ideal opportunities to engage parents and other congregants. Find out who can enrich your long-term Faith in Action activities with their personal interests, professional networks, or simply their time.
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 parents' commitment to becoming strong faith leaders in their own families. As a leader, you can support and inspire parents to bring intentionality and excitement to their role in their children's faith and moral development.