In our experience, religious education in many Orthodox communities in the United States is mostly in the hands of volunteers like us, who, albeit eager and devoted to this ministry, lack any teaching background or training. After extensive research and a lot of trial-and-error, we have reached a few conclusions on how to organize an effective Sunday School class. With the exception of the first one, our suggestions are not mandatory, yet we feel they can help the Sunday School teacher prepare an effective lesson with less effort and stress.
We always make sure that all the resources used for the lesson are in line with Orthodox teachings. Our priest’s role is fundamental in this process.
It is best to have studied the material as well and as long ahead of time as possible. We have seen that last-minute or inadequate preparation prevents us from understanding the subject in the required depth, especially when dealing with the older children, who can ask challenging questions. We also try to make sure that we remember the lesson routine well, otherwise we appear unsure and the class becomes unruly.
We scrutinize the available background information and present only as much as we find appropriate for the students’ age-level and abilities. Too much information is confusing. Not enough might become boring.
Consider your allowed time
We try to plan for only as much as our time allows (about 45 minutes). It is frustrating to spend time preparing activities that are not subsequently used in class, and unpleasant for the parents if they have to wait for longer than expected.
Set class objectives
Preparation for a class should always start with setting age-appropriate class objectives, which should be as concrete, specific and measurable as possible. What should the students be able to do or say when the lesson is over? We make a short list (3-5 bullet-points) and base the whole lesson on this list. We try to have every activity within the lesson address some part of the list.
Have a consistent lesson routine
It is helpful both for us and the students to have a consistent class routine. The students know what to expect and we have a framework on which to base the preparation for each lesson. Our class routine can be explored here.
Check your results
We always try to ascertain what the students have learned at the end of class. We take our lesson objectives and evaluate each one. Can the students do or say what we had planned for them? For a more fun approach, this kind of evaluation can often be turned into a game (there are many online resources for such games). Depending on the results, we can find out what was effective or not, and thus see how we might need to modify our approach in the following lessons.
Make it fun
We strive to make the class as fun as possible. If the lesson is pleasant, the students retain much more. Enjoying Sunday School also makes them want to attend and gives them a positive outlook on the whole Church experience. We have also found this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.
Don’t lecture – engage instead
Children (and adults) tend to get bored and distracted when having someone lecture them. Additionally, being passively exposed to information prevents knowledge retention. We look for ways to interactively engage the students for the longest part of the lesson possible.
Don’t read – explore instead
We have found plain reading from the Bible or other religious texts to be generally ineffective in attracting the students’ attention. We have seen the children participate much more actively when we present the material in a more engaging manner. Useful ideas are provided in our Class Routine page.
Children learn in different ways
Every child has his/her own way of learning. Others learn by listening, others by reading, others by listing and calculating, others by discussing, others by being stimulated through visual or audio aids, others by moving around. Therefore, it is more effective (and more enjoyable, both for the teacher and the students) to try to incorporate a variety of teaching approaches in each lesson.
And most importantly…
In an Orthodox teacher’s training seminar, we were told the following: “You are teaching children, not a subject. If your teaching is not done with a prayerful heart, filled with love for each and every one of the precious little souls that have been entrusted to your care, then you are not really accomplishing anything.”
Additionally, one of our parish priests used to say: “Whatever you do, leave some space for Christ in your work. No matter how hard you try, if your effort is only based on yourself, then you are on the wrong track.”
We always try to keep this advice in mind.