Pat Conover: Sharing the Journey
Building an Altar with Kids

Here is a little reflective piece about experiential teaching of Christian Education with primary age children in the Seekers Church Sunday School and about experiential teaching as a path to Christian growth for myself as a teacher.

You know me well enough to know that I like and care about words, concepts, ideas, principles, metaphors, stories, etc. Left to myself I am prone to dwell in a pretty heady world. I like to balance that tendency with a bit of art, of interplay, of music, etc., and I need to draw from that side of myself for experiential teaching. The experiential teaching process helps me gain new experiences to help me ground some of the ideas that I like to think about and write about

So it has been with trying to teach altars with four children of Seekers. Many of you saw the altar built by the kids on October 14th and some of you gave me appreciative feedback. Thanks. Much as I like the way the altar looked, I should tell you that it could have come out in numerous other ways and I would have liked those efforts as well.

October 14th was the sixth session of our class that I taught with one, and then another, support teachers. Starting in the second session of the class we spent some of each session working with altars. The first altar was a rectangular pile of heavy blocks that had little to recommend it in aesthetic terms from my point of view. It was done hastily and with little attention or reflection under the heading of "the teachers made us do it and we are minimally complying." We took some time to look at the first altar and, when I asked the kids what they saw they said, "It is rectangular." I asked whether they liked their altar and they hemmed and hawed and disengaged further from the process.

I could have looked on the first try as a failure of product and process. I didn't. I thought to myself, "These kids don't know anything about altars, don't want to know anything about altars, haven't paid attention much to the altars they have seen, and don't much care about what I think altars are for. The best part of that first effort was that I didn't tell the kids what I thought they were supposed to think and feel about altars. I didn't express disappointment. I didn't ask them to try harder. I accepted their effort for what it was, a minimal effort, a minimal compliance, and a first step in introducing something that was hard for this age, for this group.

Part of my goal for the class in that first try was just to regather the class after the Summer, to help the kids settle in to being a class again. We began to establish the expectation that there would be some class work and not just fun and games. (Of course I was also teaching with the fun and games but that is a different reflection.)

In the third class session we had a second try with altar building. It went better, but not a lot better. The product was a little more interesting. The participating kids each did some thing with the blocks that was their own thing. There was a little competition over the blocks, a little sharing that the kids negotiated by themselves. Then we did some crafts and put some of the results on the altar. We had the briefest kind of talk about "putting something of yourself on the altar." Best of all, the kids spent a very brief time looking at what they had produced without the feeling of grudging compliance.

I could have worried about teaching, "Any old thing will do." I didn't. I thought, "These kids still haven't engaged any of the ideas about altars and are not intentional about building an altar, but they did explore a little bit They did reflect a little bit."

None of the next class altar building efforts were a clear success. There were some more marginal improvements of the sort I have mentioned above. For example, we did have a little conversation about home altars and some parents might have followed up with that. Certainly some home follow-up could have helped. And part of the challenge was inconsistent attendance which makes it difficult to develop a theme.

But I still felt better and better about what was going on. I sensed that there was a little more connection between the altar upstairs and our practice altars downstairs and that a wisp of connection was growing about we (the kids) can do this too, whatever "this" is.

And on the 16th enough had happened so that we had a terrific process. It helped that we were working with the "real" altar upstairs. It helped that we were doing it during the Gathering Time and that parents had to make a special effort to get their kids to the experience early, making it feel a bit special, and adding that much parental support into "building altars is important." It helped that we had some additional materials to work with, a greater variety of wood, plus flowers and vases.

I spent a fair amount of preparation time, partly on Saturday evening the 13th, to assemble the altar materials. This helped me get my own energy up for the enterprise. Three children helped build the altar. We had a half hour of concentrated effort and everyone was engaged.

I had put a lovely Guatemala cloth over the altar table and had all the wood and flowers and vases handy. The kids put the wood on the altar with minimal guidance. I had to insist to Julian that he couldn't build a big pile and add flowers right in the middle front because we wanted to be able to see the membership book. He gave in gracefully, in part because he was proud of having signed his name in the book, which he proudly pointed out. Then the kids put out the vases and my only guidance was that "We don't want any of the vases to fall over." I did place one of the larger vases myself, though I'm not quite sure why I broke my own rule at that point. Probably I just wanted to share a bit of the excitement about participating in the project.

Then the kids did the flowers. I passed the flowers out one at a time and the kids decided on which vase to put them in and how long the flowers should be. I cut to their specifications. I pointed out that some of the flowers were particularly nice for background in the vases and the kids agreed and placed them that way.

The timing happened to work out just about perfectly. We were finishing up just as people started coming into the worship space from the Gathering Time down stairs. I wanted that to be the way we finished. I wanted the kids to sense themselves as being seen doing the altar for worship, wanted them to be seen to encourage later follow up and reflection. After a hasty, barely adequate, cleanup I had the joy of getting the kids to sit on the floor with me and look at what they had made. After a bit two of the kids went to sit with their parents and a third stayed up front with me. He appeared to be distracted but was actually fully aware and noticing what was going on.

What a difference from our first experience!

Later, down stairs in our class, the kids tolerated me saying a few words about our experience. I thanked them. In the thank you I appreciated their hard work and their caring. I said it was the caring that helped it be an altar and the caring that helped the adults be able to respond to it as an altar. I left a standing question about whether the caring in the altar was in the wood or the vases or the flowers.

How could you SEE the caring?

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