When we were initially assigned as Sunday School teachers, and considering that we are not professional educators, we were at a complete loss regarding class structure. Our parish did not have an adequate number of students or the financial means to implement the official GOArch curriculum, so we had to organize both the curriculum and the lesson outline ourselves. After a lot of research and much trial and error, we developed a routine which we now follow consistently. It has made a huge difference, both for us and for the students.
Line up and snack
We have found that, instead of allowing every student to enter the classroom at random, it is more effective to line the group up outside of the room until everybody has gathered together. When everyone is quiet and ready for the lesson, we open the door and the children go to their seats. Because the children are usually hungry, and to save some time from the lesson, we offer a small snack at line-up. The children finish it after they have gotten settled in class, enjoying a few minutes of fellowship before actual instruction begins. We keep snack time short; the kids have a tendency to linger, so we let them know that, once it is time for the lesson, they can pack their snack to finish it after class is over.
Vigil lamp (“kandili”)
We have designated a part of the room as icon corner. We have set up a few icons with a vigil lamp next to them. We always reserve a special place for the icon of the day, which changes each time, according to the lesson. A laminated color printout works fine.
Lighting a vigil lamp in front of the icons is a tradition many of our students have never seen performed at home, and this is why we do it in class. We assign one student as the vigil lamp helper (different student for each lesson) who assists with the different tasks involved in lighting a vigil lamp. While doing this, we go over some basic questions with the helper on a one-on-one chat. What is this object called? What are the images next to it? Who do they show? What do we do in front of them? Some of the students, especially the younger ones, do not remember this information even after a few repetitions, so we consider this discussion always useful.
While the vigil lamp is being lit, the students at the table pack their remaining snack and then gather at the icon corner for prayer time. This is when we teach how to correctly do the sign of the cross, how we should behave when saying our prayers, and how to recite specific prayers or chant hymns. If the prayer/hymn is long, we paste a large copy on the wall for all to read and we point at the phrases while reciting/chanting them. We vary the prayer depending on seasonal feasts or on the specific prayers/hymns we want the students to learn.
Review of previous lesson
After prayer, we move the students to a designated storytelling spot and we have them sit “criss-cross applesauce” on the floor. We have made this space cozy, using a rug and pillows. Once everyone is sitting down, we take out the icon of the previous lesson and do a very quick review asking questions to refresh the children’s memory.
Main story – theme of the day
After the review, we move on to the main theme of the day. This varies depending on the class objectives. It can be a New or Old Testament story, a life of a Saint, a Church history event, or some other concept such as the Divine Liturgy or how to behave in church.
We have found it works best if we only focus on one story/concept for each class. Over time, we have gotten comfortable with the fact that we will never be able to teach all of the themes that we would like. It has been proven much more effective to teach one theme per lesson, in age-appropriate depth, than many themes superficially. We have also found that it is impossible to teach an entirely abstract concept to this age group. Every theme should be tied to a specific and very concrete story.
Reading aloud has shown to be the least effective way to present the main story. Some more engaging ideas we have tried include:
- Lively reciting the story by heart, simultaneously showing pictures.
- Acting out the story using cut-out paper puppets we make for this purpose, which can be found in our resource pages.
- Lively reciting the story while presenting a slideshow on the computer.
- Showing an (approved) video before presenting the story.
- Presenting an interesting object before the story such as a helium balloon when teaching the Ascension, a fizzing-water-filled bowl when teaching the cure of the paralytic, a doll with Band Aids when teaching the Good Samaritan.
- Writing keywords on flash cards (or gluing pictures for non-readers) and distributing among the students before reciting the story. We instruct the students to lift their card when they hear their keyword mentioned.
- Having the children pass around small objects related to the story when we reach specific parts.
We always start and end the main theme presentation by discussing how it relates to the students’ life. We give practical examples and ask the children to provide some too. We have found that a great tool for discussion in this age group is a couple of puppets. Instead of directly talking to the children, the puppets talk to each other, asking the children for help. We don’t have a specific script, we improvise depending on what we want to teach. It is more fun if one puppet says wrong or outrageous things and the other corrects him/her. We have noticed that, when we use the puppets, the children pay more attention to the discussion and understand it better; kids are naturally drawn to puppets and using them avoids lecturing, so the children open up more to our message.
Icon of the day
After the discussion, we present the icon of the day. We remove it from the icon corner and describe it, asking questions based on the main points already covered.
At this point, the students get up and go back to their seats at the table. There, we present them with an icon worksheet – we include those in our resource pages. Working on it, they get to do some activity that reinforces what they just learned. They glue their icon worksheet in their Sunday School notebook, so they can keep a neat log of the lessons they participated in during the year.
Some children finish their icon work faster than others. This is why we always have one or two fun activity worksheets reinforcing the main concepts/vocabulary of the day, that we give them to work on while they are waiting. These could include: Word searches, crossword puzzles, mazes, fill-in-the-blanks, word matching etc. We provide such worksheets in our resource pages.
We end the class with a fun activity, usually a craft, a game, or both, always relative to the main theme. We consider this a crucial part of the lesson, and we never skip it. Having fun with their friends in Sunday School helps the children associate Church with pleasant feelings of companionship and increases their desire to attend – not to mention that it makes the whole experience much more pleasant for the teacher.
Except for a game or craft, other ideas could include:
- A short improvised play based on the main story (improvised costumes and props make it more fun).
- Acting out the story with Playmobils or dolls (such as “baptizing” a baby doll in a bowl when teaching baptism).
- Building a Lego scene of the story.
- Singing a theme-related song.
We either move the students to the icon corner again or just have them stand in their spot for closing prayer. Then we have them pack their things, line up and quietly leave the room.