Sunday, September 25, 2011

Secular Sunday school

I'm teaching one of the Sunday school classes1 for my Quaker meeting for a few months. As an agnostic, I wasn't really sure how to come up with lessons that were appropriately Quakerly but didn't require me pretending to believe anything I don't.

The first month has gone pretty well. We focused on John Woolman, a Quaker abolitionist of the 18th century, long before it was popular. I read his journal once, and what struck me that this hero of social justice was not a happy guy. I thought being that far ahead of your time required a disregard for social convention, but he actually did care what his peers thought. Telling his slaveowning friends that their way of life was reprehensible made him really embarrassed.

I thought the topic of "Doing what you think is right, even when it's unpopular or embarrassing" was totally apt for eleven-year-olds. They're starting to be embarrassed about nearly everything, so they might as well practice. We did some role-plays of John Woolman and his friends, and then some of modern schoolchildren dealing with a bully. We talked about how authority will not always step in to solve things, either by outlawing slavery or by making other kids stop being mean, and sometimes you have to take action yourself.

The kids were fairly interested, the old Quakers were happy I was teaching them Woolman, and I was happy I didn't have to mention God. I thought I'd write up the idea, since it might be useful to other teachers in a similar quandary. You could do the same with an admirable person from just about any faith tradition.

1. Technically "First Day school", since early Quakers weren't okay with pagan names for days of the week or months of the year. This leads to strangely numeric sentences like "The next business meeting is on the third First Day of Ninth Month."

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