Vicki Michela Garlock earned her Ph.D. from the University of AL at Birmingham with dual specialties in neuroscience and cognitive development. That educational background, along with her personal religious upbringing, is directly applied when designing the Sunday School curriculum. The descriptions below provide a glimpse into the instructional approaches we are using and why.
Upper Elementary Curriculum (Ages 8-11)
The Upper Elementary units form a three-year curriculum that uses Bible stories as a foundation for exploring religious themes, life’s questions, and other cultures. At this age, most children can read on their own. They can also engage in simple comparisons. They can articulate the similarities and differences between two different stories/passages, and they can relate a story/passage to their own lives.
This curriculum, therefore, uses actual Bible passages rather than a Bible storybook. When possible, the Bible story is used exactly as written. When a Bible story is too long (e.g., Noah, Esther, Ruth) or contains “difficult” material (e.g., polygamy, menstruation), excerpts are used. This allows the kids to read the Bible in a developmentally-appropriate way that matches what they currently know about the world.
The curriculum is also not based on a lectionary. Instead, the curriculum uses entire sagas (e.g., Moses story or Joseph story from beginning to end) or specific themes (e.g., Peace, Compassion). This approach allows us to focus on the stories and passages that are the most compelling, the most popular, and the most relevant to life. It also allows for a more coherent (and slightly repetitive) review of the story or the theme, which increases depth of understanding. It also helps the kids to participate fully, even if they are not attending Sunday School every single week.
Crafts and activities are experiential in nature with almost no use of coloring pages, mazes, or crossword puzzles. We want the kids to create something of their own to represent what they learned that day. We also want them to move around. It is simply not instructionally appropriate for kids to simply sit around and talk about these ideas, even for 45 minutes. They need to try different prayer postures, they need to create their own object from clay, or they need to play a relevant game.
Finally, the kids need to use their new-found comparison abilities. Every lesson provides an opportunity to compare two Bible passages, to relate the passage to their current lives, to learn about life in another time/place, or to compare a Bible passage with an excerpt from another religious text. With this age group, we are successfully using excerpts from the Qur’an, the Tao Te Ching, the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Jataka Tales, and various creation stories from around the world. Each unit also includes lesson plans for two related holidays from other traditions.
Research in cognitive psychology shows that upper elementary kids enjoy practicing their emerging thinking skills. Our instructional approach provides many opportunities for them to engage their minds creatively.
Middle School Curriculum (Ages 11-14)
The Middle School units also form a three-year curriculum. Like the curriculum for the Upper Elementary kids, this curriculum uses entire sagas (e.g., Moses story or Joseph story from beginning to end) or specific themes (e.g., Peace, Compassion) instead of a lectionary. As mentioned above, this approach allows for a more coherent (and slightly repetitive) review of the story or the theme, which increases depth of understanding. It also helps the kids to participate fully, even if they are not attending Sunday School every single week.
The Middle School Curriculum expands on the approaches used with the Upper Elementary group. Lessons plans take full advantage of middle-schoolers’ increased cognitive capacity, enhanced ability to think abstractly, and expanded world view. Here are some of the ways we are accomplishing this:
- Each lesson provides opportunities to compare Bible stories/passages with passage from other ancient texts or from other translations of the Bible. They read from the same literature as the younger group (e.g., Qur’an, Tao Te Ching, Jataka Tales, creation stories from around the world), but they also read from other ancient works (e.g., Tales of the Prophets, Gnostic Gospels).
- Bible stories are read as-is, unless they are too long for the time allotted (e.g., Noah, Esther, Ruth). “Difficult” material (e.g., menstruation, polygamy) is rarely removed, as middle-schoolers are developing a much more complex worldview.
- Kids are expected to share insights from their personal lives.
- Multiple perspectives/interpretations on a single story are regularly presented (e.g., the life of Mary Magdalene, the 10 plagues, angel visits), and they are allowed to explore what makes the most sense to them.
- Numerous abstract and metaphorical concepts are introduced (e.g., deception, feeling like you are living “in a desert”).
- Stories/Passages are placed in historical context. What was it like to be sick back then? What was it like to be a woman? What was it like to be a child?
- Experiential learning activities are more advanced, relying on greater manual dexterity, memory ability, and group processing skills. Lessons also require additional thought to make connections between the activity and the readings.