Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Families: A Jr. High School Youth Program that Explores the Diversity, Commonality, and Meaning of Families


Part of Families

The Program

Enduring and changing, the family is an important part of communities and of Unitarian Universalist congregations. Recently, the terms family and family values have become laden with political meanings. With UU Principles as a guide, we can reclaim and recognize the family as grounded in care and experiences of lived diversity. In their strength, endurance, and malleability, families demonstrate lived faith. They are diverse and often held in the eye of the beholder. Children who have parents who do not live together may be singular "keepers" of their family, which cannot be solely defined by locale. Children with families of multiple races and ethnicities may identify themselves as multiracial or multiethnic. Older adults living alone may define their families as being very small or large and extended. Increasingly families are defined by their functionality. How members care for each other matters most. Who is in a family varies widely and contributes to the diversity of healthy variation.

Program Overview

What is a family? What does a family do? Who defines family? This twelve-session program provides avenues for in-depth exploration of the diversity, commonality, and meaning of families. Designed for flexible use by junior and/or senior high school youth, the program combines a photo-documentary project with sessions that engage participants in deconstructing and reconstructing the notion of family. The curriculum relies on facilitators to create a safe space that allows youth to explore freely, to share their own thoughts, prejudices, hopes, and stories. The photo-documentary project allows youth to be leaders in an intergenerational congregational activity. In the process of the program, the youth will:

  • Explore and share preconceptions and lived experiences of family life
  • Reflect on the meanings, functions, stresses, and joys of families
  • Learn about the true diversity of family life, both within their congregation and more broadly
  • Gain an understanding of how Unitarian Universalist Principles can be enacted in families
  • Deepen their respect, appreciation, and care for families through their project and session work
  • Engage in the collaborative, creative, artistic, and ethical representation of families
  • Engage as leaders in an intergenerational congregational project

Program Introduction

Families is a twelve-session, highly interactive youth program designed for groups of eight to twenty participants. It can be adapted for smaller and larger groups. Designed for both junior and senior high youth, it can also be used in a mixed age group. The photo-documentary project will need more or less supervision depending on the skills, maturity, interests, and tenor of the group. The sessions offer choices for activities; they can be adapted for the specific needs of the group. Each session is written to last one hour. Alternative activities are included for groups that meet longer than one hour. Facilitators are encouraged to read each session and make choices that suit their group. Many of the activities require no preparation and can be included at short notice as time permits.

Adapting the Program

Although the program can be adapted to meet a group's needs, the two opening sessions and the closing session are highly recommended. In the existing curriculum, Sessions 7 through 9—which examine family function—can be used out of order or omitted. Extending Families into a longer curriculum is possible by expanding sessions to span more than one sixty-minute period or adding more sessions that exclusively provide time to work on the photo-documentary project. Combining sessions enables the curriculum to be used in full weekend formats or weeklong retreats.

The combination of session-based and project-based curriculum allows participants to explore their own realities of family and experiences of representation before looking more broadly at others. The process of considering one's own lived experiences is a foundation for the sensitive understanding of others. For youth and leaders, the dual experiences of understanding self and others transcend any content about families and builds deeper faith.


Families is part of the Tapestry of Faith, the lifespan integrated curriculum series developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Embedded in this program is attention to four strands of development: ethical, spiritual, Unitarian Universalist religious identity, and faith development.

Ethical Development

The program is designed to help adolescents:

  • Broaden and deepen their understandings and definitions of families, including the roles and functions of families
  • Explore the meaning of healthy families in a diversity of forms
  • Value each person's individual worth and realize his/her unique perspective as an interpreter of our world and as a teller of our stories
  • Build and foster the ability to understand multiple perspectives
  • Develop the ethics of care and responsibility through the intimate and ethical process of engaging with and representing families

Spiritual Development

The program is designed to help adolescents:

  • Understand and appreciate the emotional, affective, and spiritual dimensions of families
  • Develop a personal sense of values regarding families
  • Deepen spirituality through engagement with others and through their work with artistic media
  • Engage in the shared ministry of focusing—literally and figuratively—on the faces and narratives of congregation members
  • Grow and deepen their naturally compassionate souls
  • Engage joyfully in the creation of art

Unitarian Universalist Religious Identity

The program is designed to help adolescents:

  • Learn more fully that there is no "objective" point of view
  • Understand how the living tradition of the UU faith and its Principles can interpret and guide families
  • Learn how the fundamentals of photography translate to our way of living and interpreting the world in a more general way

Faith Development

The program is designed to help adolescents:

  • Engage as leaders of a project that serves the greater congregation and affirms more deeply their place in interdependent, multigenerational, congregational life
  • Collaborate with peers
  • Experience the roles of photographer/artist and storyteller—visual and/or text—within a faith community

Other Skills

The program is designed to help adolescents:

  • Learn and enjoy the complex process of seeing and interpreting
  • Learn the fundamentals of photography, including framing, point of view, timing, and use of symbols/details
  • Learn the mechanics and art of camera use and the display of photographic images


This program is designed for co-leadership. In addition to sharing the work of leading, there are many benefits of co-leadership, such as providing more than one role model, setting an example of collaboration, providing more than one adult with whom youth can develop trust, and reducing the potential isolation of leading without a partner. In addition, co-leaders regularly evaluate the program and offer critical and creative course corrections. Co-leadership often leads to a deep connection and appreciation between the leaders—some of the many rewards of engagement in this program.

The most important skill for co-leadership is the ability to sensitively and authentically interact with youth. The curriculum navigates issues close to the hearts of adolescents, and careful, empathic listening and questioning are necessary. Knowing how to gently probe or facilitate youth's sharing requires patience. These skills develop in the context of care and trust. Co-leadership makes connecting to individual youth possible. Knowing more about youth who seem reluctant to participate or are quiet during discussions is important in order to sensitively cater the program to meet group needs. Co-leaders can share the responsibility of facilitating the group and reaching out to individuals effectively.

The photo-documentary project requires some basic knowledge of photography and display. Although familiarity with camera use is helpful, it is not a requisite for leadership. Enlisting the help of someone who is willing to consult as needed will provide enough support for the photo-documentary project.

Sharing Leadership with Youth

Many of the segments of the sessions can be ably led by youth. Youth leadership builds participants' ownership and investment in the processes and activities of the sessions. It also nurtures youth's developing abilities to lead and take initiatives. Simple activities that require little preparation, such as lighting the chalice, greeting participants at the start of the session, or acting as scribe during group generation of ideas, can be done easily by youth of all ages. There are many ways to involve youth in leadership, including:

  • Provide Program Input. As a group, youth can help guide their own programs. Soliciting youth input about activity choices is respectful and appropriate when leaders are ready to act on participants' ideas. Choices about snack and closing and opening rituals are easy to plan collaboratively. Like adult leaders, youth provide the best input when they are given sufficient background. For example, if youth lead chalice lighting, they may need a hymnal or other sources for meditative words. If youth are asked to choose session activities, they need enough information to make good decisions.
  • Co-Lead a Session Activity. With advance planning, youth can co-lead session activities. This challenge is often very appropriate for older adolescents, and a congregation can provide just the right environment for youth to take such leadership risks. Adolescents are seldom in communities that welcome their leadership; our faith communities can be an exception. Therefore, adults need to solicit youth interest in potential leadership roles and follow up. It is the adult leader's responsibility to support youths' leadership success. Youth, like adults, will have their own leadership style. Flexibility about style of leadership is both necessary and healthy. Encourage all interested youth to co-lead an activity. Hesitant youth may be more willing to attempt leadership after observing the success of their peers. Participating in leadership builds individual and collective identities as well as group process. Adult leaders can support youth by modeling attentiveness and cooperation during youth leadership and managing those aspects of the program that youth are not leading.
  • Co-Lead the Photo-Documentary Project. Youth leadership is an inherent part of the photo-documentary project. While adult co-leaders will recruit congregational families for the photo-documentary, youth will engage directly with families about photography, narratives, and the families' reflections on their representation in the project. Adult leaders need to back up youth by addressing connections that are not made, details that are overlooked, and other aspects of project work that need support. Often youth have wonderful ideas and plans that go unrealized. Adult leaders must skillfully walk the line between too much and too little support and guidance. A benefit of this curriculum is that adults can assure participants' success on the photo-documentary project without stifling their initiative and creativity.
  • Participate in Overall Program Leadership. Leaders may wish to have senior high youth join the leadership team. Experienced youth, already seasoned in leading sessions, may join an adult in leading the entire program. Alternatively, youth can be effective co-leaders for full individual sessions. Planning is necessary, since session leadership often requires at least a week of preparation. To prepare, the adult and youth co-leaders read the session in advance, make activity choices, determine each person's responsibilities, and prepare to lead together. In this process the adult must maintain his/her responsibility of mentoring youth co-leaders and supporting the program participants.


The content and processes of Families is designed to meet the developmental needs of youth. Adolescence is a time of tremendous physical, psychological, and cognitive growth and development. Typically, adolescence marks the start of reflective thinking—an ability to think about thinking. Self-consciousness and awareness of others are heightened. Adolescents feel autonomous, but are still dependent on the network of others who care for them.

Early adolescence sometimes marks a period of diminishing communication between youth and their caregivers. At the same time, adolescents are considering their identity: who they are and who they wish to become. The process of identity development is intimately tied to youths' families. Although family relationships define young children's identities, adolescents embark on the journey of navigating independent, relational identities. Tensions from change—both internal developmental changes and external changes, such as death, divorce, remarriage, and inclusion of new family members—often arise. While adolescents may rebel against or even rebuke families, they need and depend on them. Belonging to a wider shared community, such as a faith community, can support adolescents and their families.

This curriculum is designed to provide space for youth to begin to look at their families. Understanding begins with attending and listening to each other's descriptions of their own realities. This program offers opportunities for those processes to occur. By understanding their own families, learning more broadly about families, and representing a range of healthy families, youth will gain a greater sense of family functionality and their own efficacy in contributing to it. Thinking about who serves the functions of family in their own lives may broaden youths' visions and move them toward broader notions of family health and identity.

By participating in the curriculum, and especially the photo-documentary project, youth are able to be congregational leaders. This shifts adolescents from the margins to the center of congregational life. Young adolescents are capable of profoundly abstract thought, but are sometimes uninterested in activities that are primarily verbal and/or intellectual. They need outlets that allow them to move about and to learn through experience rather than through a talking heads approach.

Developmentally, adolescents are ready to have some authority and autonomy. Creating and sharing artistic representations of families in the photo-documentary project, youth influence the congregation and act as leaders. In their work, youth may identify themselves as artists, and that enriches their emerging self-concepts and identities. The congregation also sees itself differently. The photo-documentary project serves as an interpretive mirror. Youth and the greater congregation are mutually served.

Some characteristics of the young adolescent 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 other's 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

In older adolescents you may witness:

  • An increase in independent functioning
  • A firmer and more cohesive sense of identity
  • A greater ability to think through ideas and examine inner experiences
  • Conflict with parents beginning to decrease
  • An increased ability for delayed gratification and compromise
  • Increased emotional stability
  • An increased concern for others
  • Work habits becoming more defined
  • More importance placed on one's role in life
  • Development of more serious relationships
  • A greater capacity for setting goals
  • An interest in moral reasoning
  • An increased emphasis on personal dignity and self-esteem
  • Social and cultural traditions regaining some of their previous importance

The Families program offers ways to support the younger/older adolescent:

  • Promote healthy body image and 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 enabling 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

By adapting activities or using alternate activities, you can help ensure that every session is inclusive of participants with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles, food allergies, and other sensitivities or limitations. Below, you will find general guidance on adapting the activities along with some resources for implementing inclusion.

As you plan your 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, if you plan to serve snacks.

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.

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.

A helpful resource is Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs.