The teacher in a Montessori classroom spends a significant amount of time observing the way the children interact with each other and the room including all its materials. A scientist conducting experimental trials is a good analogy for the sort of observation expected of the teacher. She sits in one spot for much of a given session taking occasional notes trying to go unnoticed by the children lest (as often happens) the child now aware of the teacher’s special notice will abandon the activity or change how they are working with the materials in a drastic way. From what she observes she will make changes to the arrangement of the room, plan to give a private lesson on an area of needed clarification to some children, or determine if additional materials and lessons should be introduced to the room.
When I led Spirit Play classes, I loved this reflective practice and am sad that I did not prioritize it more or think about the ways I might use those observations not only in modifying or tweaking Spirit Play as a whole program but in thinking creatively about the spiritual work of that particular set of young people. I think many times our storytellers in their understandable focus on perfecting their presentations of lessons sadly overlook what is a vital aspect of their role, namely the purposeful observation as already described.
Certainly there is a limited time and frequency in which Spirit Play takes place and the rotation of multiple lead teachers throughout the year all make this discipline a bit more challenging not so much in actually making the observations but in reflecting in a diagnostic and informed way to individualize and customize the space and planned lessons to introduce to particular individuals in the class.
However these obstacles can be overcome to some degree by recording teacher observations throughout the year with entrys by various teachers. If done using a record keeping tool with a range of functionality and ease of access to the particular information sought in a given instance then a proper disciplined observational practice would both enrich the experience and reward of those serving as storytellers and the ongoing ministry of education with that particular group of young people and through possible insights about programmatic improvements that are called for in how all of us work with Spirit Play.
I have been reviewing the various record keeping tools for teachers available and in particular those designed expressly for use by Montessori teachers. Of the three leading web-based digital services on the market I have am inclined toward Montessori Compass. This web-based software has the most user-friendly interface which incorporates rich visual features to support swift input of information as it is observed. All of the services include many more features than would be needed for a Spirit Play program but I found the customisability features in Montessori Compass to be simple to learn and well suited to the sort of tweaking that would be most helpful if preparing to use the software to record observations and lessen sequencing etc. throughout a year of Spirit Play. It is worth looking over and since they offer a free three-week trial you can really get a good sense for how well the software would fit your specific needs and goals. After the initial three weeks the cost is really not very steep especially given the value to be had through data that can better guide our future work in religious education and lifespan faith development than the anecdotally based hunches upon which we so often rely in this important work.
In my previous post I suggested browsing an online educational resource store to get inspiration for R.E. materials, especially for use in a Spirit Play program. In my inspiration shopping I have been looking for ideas that would suggest a broader range of presentation and materials types to work with. As triangles are a way of representing a promise what other uses of shape would work to represent abstraction related to our religious and spiritual questions and impulses? Instead of a standard lesson for each and every figure in our history we want to introduce maybe there is some other way these figure could be brought into the learning environment but each and person who is U or U or UU and has achieved some degree of fame would not have to be presented in the way we would present Jesus, or the Buddha. And I am anxious to have more materials designed to use in Spirit Play as extension lessons that may not always need to be introduced for the child to find ways to work with the materials that is engaging, offers opportunities to learn and grow, and is still completely on topic with the content and focus of religious education. The design I have posted here to share hardly represent all the things I said I have wanted to bring to Spirit Play. This is both a particular material set to introduce a mosque. You can easily imagine the additional sets that I have to introduce worship spaces used by other faith traditions and communities. Also the way the materials are presented on the slatted base or even the expanded base with a background board complete with slots to slide labels or small picture cards could lend itself to a number of new lessons. The base creates a practical style or manner of presenting a lesson. Next the goal is to observe and reflect to find any ways in which a slatted base and backboard lesson presentation offers a concretization of some relevent conceptual structures and if these structures have importance for what it is we purpose to be doing in our educational ministries.
Let’s hear it again for the religious education resources from the UK. TTS offers educational supplies that can be ordered online for use in a wide range of subjects from science and math to physical education. Their religious education items are listed by religious group, mode of education, type of materials and so on. The prices are steep even before doing the exchange rate to figure out what things cost in US dollars. However even if you aren’t likely to purchase anything from TTS I still recommend you check it out for some inspiration. Especially for those who work with Spirit Play some of the items you will find at TTS would be great for Spirit Play and creating your own material based on a TTS find may not be terribly difficult to fabricate with a change or tweak here and there.
Some of my favorites where the boxes each filled with items from a different religious tradition. The items might include cards and booklets with images and information, special clothing worn by practitioners, objects used in religious ceremonies, and decorations for celebrating a holiday or religious festival. Obviously these are something people can make since the TTS boxes give ideas but there is no need to limit your items to what comes in these commercial products. They also had both plush and wood (or plastic) worship spaces play sets. The church opens to reveal the baptismal font and communion table, while inside the mosque there is a Koran on its stand and stairs the imam climbs to give the sermon, and in the synagogue you see an arc for storing the Torah and a hanging lamp for the eternal flame.
In Godly Play Jerome will often have children bring to the circle lessons they feel belong together with the lesson which he just presented to them. The children bring materials used to present other lessons they have learned and place them on the floor in the middle of the circle next to the lesson planned and intended for that day and in doing this and discussing their selected stories or we might say texts they in fact demonstrate sophisticated parallels, juxtapositions and intersexual potential for one story to interpret another though this is all done in the familiar language of manipulative objects, ancient stories, and of course wondering questions.
One of the questions and discussion points that came up several times at the recent Spirit Play conference in San Antonio was how to involve older children, teens, and adults in a kind of Spirit Play that is appropriate and stimulating for who and where they are. Not to trivialize the significant challenges that would in fact present themselves in many cases if one took on the work of faithfully offering such a translation via a comparable curricular design. I do however want to underscore the other truth about such an aim which is how absolutely simple it is to do as well, for it can be achieved artlessly by just telling a story and inviting the adults or teens to creatively wonder over it using the tools provided by the broader lexicon available to them in the form of poetry and important words remembered from songs and worship, sacred histories both personal and corporate, in the people and events and ideals represented all arround us in stained glass windows, carvings, artwork, and rituals with which we cover and mark the physical spaces in which we gather as well as the metaphorical and temporal spaces we inhabit as a united people both congregational and associational.
So here is my example which not only illustrates the type of thing I am describing but is offered to you as an actual ready to use focus to use for a class of adults or older teens some time.
Watch the recent film, directed by Tom Hanks, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. After you have watched it have some one present you the story of “The Buddha and the Mustard Seed Medicine,” in which Kisa Gatomi has all but lost her senses and gone made from grief over the loss of her only son. The buddha issues a challenge to her that is so utterly ridiculous except to one who is caught in the raving nightmare brought on by the need to hold onto what can not be possessed or claimed and so she follows her desire from house to house untill at some point she begins to wake up and awareness enters like a candle in a dark room and she returns with a new peace and joins the Buddha’s Sangha though she is not just a disciple for she becomes a well-respected teacher who is regarded as having attained a higher state of consciousness than have the vast majority of us a state that is approaching the attainment of her own buddha nature. I have to say I was blown away with the deep resonant parallels between the ancient story told as a movie set only a few short years ago amidst events which many Americans still experience as fretfully recent.
My suggestion for using it with adults is to invite people to the class or discussion or whatever setting you would be using to frame the exercise and encourage them to watch the movie in advance of the session ( I think it would be too much movie to watch all together if you then wanted an open and spirit led conversation with the potential to wonder toward new and meaningful insights and realizations for those involved. I do think it is important to have some immediate and shared experience of the story told in the movie and the story from the life of the Buddha. My suggestion is to select several clips from the film that capture the big ideas of the film and I would use anywhere from 15 to as much as 30 minutes of clips from the movie (2 or three extended scenes also not 20 itty-bitty clips)- so that every one can draw from their own perception and reception of the ideas and themes from the movie rather than someone elses summary, and so that there still is a real way in which the group had together watched the movie. Then without discussion I would bring out the Spirit Play Basket with the materials for the “buddha and the mustard seed medicine” and present it to the adults or teens as you would in Spirit Play with the exception that I would announce that I was going to share the story with them in the style of telling stories used for the young children in our Spirit Play program. When I had finished the story portion of the lesson I would initiate several wondering questions though not simply arround the story of Kisa Gatomi and the Buddha but also the movie as well as questions that opened the group to reflect on the possible meaning or value or insight that emerges when these two vastly different stories are told side by side. You could even consider the next step of offering the adults the opportunity to metaphorically place the materials for other stories that come to mind for them which seem to belong in the same meaningful moment and reflective pause with this film and this Ancient episode from Buddhist religious history.