anthony intraversato 5WYkd62XxTo unsplashWhen I asked the 4th through 8th grade class about the culture that they want to create in their class, one student responded that they want it to be welcoming to everyone. Is it? I asked the students to imagine what it might feel like to walk into the class if you are new, from a different culture, with a different communication or learning style. 

We had a similar conversation at the Board and Coordinating Council meeting this month: can we be aware of our own culture in order to be more welcoming and inclusive? There are subtle practices that I am trying to keep in mind - like leaving more wait time for people who think before blurting things out. According the Jen Mattias, cultural humility is an attitude or approach which calls you to be willing to suspend what you think you know about a person and to be open to learning from other people directly about their personal culture. Can we all learn to exercise cultural humility and compassion in our groups and communities?

Compassion is like a muscle -- it develops more the more you work it. As parents, caregivers, educators, and mentors, we can help young people develop compassion by modeling it, noticing it, and practicing it. Over the past month, the K-3 and 4th-8th grade students have been practicing “heartfulness” as their mindfulness ritual. Heartfulness is also known as Metta practice in Pali or loving-kindness meditation and is one way to teach compassion. It involves sending messages of kindness to yourself, loved ones, strangers, and all beings everywhere. It can help to build understanding and compassion for others - no matter who they are. Here is an example of a heartfulness meditation to use with your kids (or yourself!):

Charlie19"The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own….In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul; to bring understanding, conscience and heart into earnest vigorous action on religious and moral truth, to excite and cherish spiritual life." -William Ellery Channing

Lately I have been having a hard time using the term Religious Education (RE) to describe our program. In large part, I have observed that people are turned off by the idea of religious education or have a limited view of what RE is. What words better encapsulate this notion of stirring up minds, awakening the soul, and inspiring action? How can we invite new families into this endeavor if they have been turned off by religion in the past?

In my first year as the Director of Religious Education, the RE Council worked on clarifying our mission and vision for the educational and spiritual work that we do at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. This was a helpful process to guide our work with students of all ages and I think we clarified the actual work of our religious education program. The visioning process is ongoing though, and I have been enjoying conversations with families about what they envision for their children and themselves in their spiritual and UU educations. Please let me know if you would like to talk about our education program’s mission and vision -- for any age.

Mission Statement

Religious Education at USNF engages children and youth with lessons, activities, community service, and events which exemplify the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism.  RE brings together community members of all ages to learn, grow, grapple, celebrate, and serve together.

Vision Statement

Religious Education at USNF is:

  • a primary hub through which members of the congregation develop a robust and affirming sense of self, community, and faith.
  • a nurturing environment in which members of the congregation become religiously literate by exploring Unitarian Universalist history, principles, and values, and gaining an appreciation of our neighboring faiths. 
  • an affirming community in which all members feel valued, and become invested in valuing others.
  • an incubator for personal and communal work for social justice.  
  • a space where children and youth experience safety and radical acceptance.

“So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible.”

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

When you play, anything is possible. You can be a princess or a dinosaur! You can travel through time and space! But it turns out that play opens up so many more possibilities. Play teaches kids to make and keep friends, resolve conflicts, build confidence, learn healthy risk-taking, and develop problem solving skills. When kids direct their own play, they get more exercise and are injured less than when they are involved in adult-directed play. This seemingly obvious and necessarily trivial part of childhood actually turns out to be amazingly beneficial and increasingly rare.IMG 0859

So, how can we make sure that kids are playing more? Where can we find the precious time to just let them collaborate and create with each other? I am hoping that we can include this in our smorgasboard of faith development offerings. If our goal is to help kids and youth develop skills to be kind to one another, value themselves and others, learn and search together, and build a fair and peaceful world, it seems like play is a brilliant strategy for teaching these principles. Not to mention the ways that playing together (particularly outside) helps us to learn to care for our planet earth and realize that we are all connected in an interdependent web.

I want to try offering a Play Club from 11:25-12:30 on Sundays after RE. Some weeks we will be outside, some weeks we will be in the social room. Every week, the kids (of all ages) will get to be self directed, with access to games and arts and crafts supplies.  We will need 2 adults to chaperone. Other parents can take the opportunity to have a break.

When I consider offering a play club after religious education, I get nervous that it might just not be possible. What if I can’t find adults to chaperone? What if no one comes? However, the possibilities of developing kids that have a sense of ease, creativity, and leadership make the risk seem worth it. If you are interested in helping to make play a possibility at USNF, please send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Beloved Community: Anti-Bias Education for Children & Youth at USNF 

aaron burden 1zR3WNSTnvY unsplash“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world...We deepen those bondings by connecting them with an anti-racist struggle.” -bell hooks

As an educator, it is my inclination to emphasize all the ways that we are similar and get along; as hooks says, I want to minimize difference. Yet, the rest of the world seems to be rapidly dividing into incompatible silos. While I still want our kids to connect meaningfully with each other, I also want them to know what to do when connections breaks down -- either interpersonally or because of systems of oppression and inequity.  How do we teach children the skills to learn to work together across difference and interrupt injustice in themselves and their communities? 

Bit by bit, in our religious education program, we are trying to raise children that are proud of their identities and who can also celebrate and appreciate diversity. As we progress through this year with a focus on anti-bias education, we hope to give kids the tools to talk about race, class, privilege, bias, and discrimination and to feel empowered to take a stand against bias and injustice. These goals build on each other and will guide the RE program this year (and every year, for that matter): 

Goals of Anti-Bias Education 

  1. Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family-pride, and positive social identities
  2. Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections
  3. Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and that, and increasingly how, unfairness hurts
  4. Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discrimination

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of our desire to understand.”
― Neil Armstrong

Every time I take Irida’s kids to Pulaski Park, Jasmin needs to spend time at the “water mountain” (fountain), playing in the water. Even now that it is cold and snowy, she examines it, exploring the dynamics of water and ice. This feature of the park that I never even noticed is actually a scientific lab from her perspective, a place to research the mystery of water. One of the many things that I love about working with young people is getting to witness and -- when I am lucky -- participate in their sense of wonder. Kids remind me that we are surrounded by beauty and mystery.Snowflake

As a family, you can take time this month to celebrate mystery together through experiences in the natural world and practices of slowing down. A walk in the woods is a great lab for exploring mystery and we are lucky to be surrounded with woods walks that are good for children of all abilities. I have found that asking questions is a helpful way to elicit the sense of wonder. “I wonder who made these tracks in the snow? Why is this stream frozen in some places and not others? Why does everything get so quiet after a snowfall?” Even though a lot of natural observations can be explained, leaving them in the realm of mystery helps me to appreciate them more. On December 18, you can check out the Geminid meteor shower. Some shooting stars associated with the shower should be visible from December 7 through 16.

A lot of people feel very busy and stressed out during this time of year. See if you can carve out some time to slow down, do less, and celebrate the mystery around you.

Faith Development over the Summer 

“In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, in the mind of the expert there are few.” (Shunyru Suzuki)

Religious Education ends on June 16 and summer childcare starts the following week, every Sunday from 10-11.
joel bader 478853 unsplashYou can spend the summer celebrating the UU principles and traditions with your family. Use these ideas to help you embrace your UU identity together. Let it be a guide to inspire you!

Summer Chalice
If you don't already have a chalice in your home, create one out materials you already have in your home. What are the pieces of a chalice that make it important? Do some research and discuss as a family why the chalice and flame is the symbol of our faith. Does knowing that history make lighting the chalice each Sunday at church more meaningful? Why or why not?
Activity: Choose a night each week to light the chalice before dinner. Take turns choosing quotes to share with the chalice lighting.

Here are some quotes to choose from:

  • We light this candle to remind ourselves to treat all people kindly because they are our brothers and sisters. ~Anonymous  
  • We light our flaming chalice today for the place of quietness and holiness within each of us, and for whatever helps us to feel peaceful inside. ~Ann Fields & Joan Goodwin

Table Grace
Bring ritual to your meals together. Start a meal with a table grace. 

Here are some graces to choose from:

  • Earth, who gives to us this food, Sun, who makes it ripe and good, Dear Earth, dear Sun, by you we live. To you our loving thanks we give. ~Anonymous
  • Goddess, bless this food you have given me. Let it be filled with your divine energy so that I will be healthy and live a long and happy life. Goddess bless! Blessed be! ~Sirona Knight  
  • Loving Spirit, be our guest, dine with us, share our bread, that our table might be blessed and our souls be fed. ~Gary Kowalski

Reading Together
Choose a book as a family that you will read together over the course of the summer. How did you choose this book, and why? Who, in your family, chose it?  As you read the book together, consider which UU principles come up in the book. Discuss what you learn about the principles and how the lessons from the book inform your lives.

Book Suggestions:

  • Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
  • Dexter the Tough by Margaret P. Haddix

Environmental Awareness and Stewardship
Discuss the 7th principle, Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,  and what it means to each of you.

Activities: Start a notebook for your summer outdoor activities. Use sketches, writing, or collected objects to remember those moments you felt closest to nature
Take a walk through your neighborhood. What do you notice? What do you wonder about? What trash can you pick up for your community?

Giving thanks for abundance is sweeter than the abundance itself.


Our theme this month is abundance and there are plenty of ways to use this theme to grow with your family and develop spiritually. This theme is annie spratt 418638 unsplashparticularly timely as we prepare for winter, harvest the last of the crops, and celebrate Thanksgiving. How can we remember that there is abundance and extra to share when we are moving into a time of scarcity?

When I hear the word abundance, I automatically think of gratitude. It is easy to take abundance for granted and gratitude is a helpful way to remember and appreciate. There is more and more research that shows that being consciously grateful leads to greater happiness. At meals (perhaps one special meal a week or every night), go around the table to share something you are grateful for. Write or draw things that you are grateful for on slips of colorful paper. Hang the slips on a tree in your yard, a branch in a vase, or tuck them into a special box for safe keeping. These can be helpful reminders on a gloomy day.

Another way to remember our abundance is through service and giving back to our communities. On November 4, RE families are invited to help out with the bike path clean up that Gail Gaustad organizes every month (spring through fall). The Food Bank of Western Mass has monthly volunteer days that are open to people of all ages. Join us on November 17 for educational and hands on opportunities. Or perhaps this month your family makes a meal for another family, invites a special guest to dinner, or helps a neighbor rake leaves.


“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” -Ralph Waldo EmersonMoon

The Religious Education program is looking forward to exploring wholeness this month. How can we support and nurture each individual’s sense of wholeness and our connection to a larger wholeness? We strive in our faith formation program to honor the worth and dignity of each child and to give them confidence to be themselves and share their gifts. We also want our children and youth to feel like they are an important part of the community beyond themselves -- our classes, our congregation, our community. I invite you to connect with a young person this month and see if you can remind each other that you are whole just as you are and that we are a whole as a community.


The whole world is built and rebuilt by the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
-Rev Misha Sanders

One of my favorite memories from childhood is when my dad would read to me. I loved sharing a book with him and having it come to life between us. As an adult, reading to others is one of my greatest joys. There is something so magical about a story that is shared between people.

The theme of story provides an invitation for us to come together in community to share our personal stories, our family stories, our favorite stories, and the stories of our faith and congregation. As religious education classes get to know each other, they have the opportunity to share stories to reveal more of themselves. Indeed, stories shape our identity, our values, and our understanding of the world around us. What stories are meaningful to you?

Take time this month to share family stories with your children. Do you have stories that have been passed down over the generations?

Around the dinner table, leave time for everyone to share a story from their day. Discuss what our experiences teach us and how our stories can inform our actions. We can choose to tell stories that uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person and respect the interconnected web of which we are all a part. Think about how our stories can reinforce our principles.

Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, 'You owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky. -HāFIZ

I have been pondering our monthly theme, trust, trying to figure out how we develop it in ourselves and with each other. How do we teach children howngaere woodford bender 304101 unsplash to trust themselves, who to trust, and what to do when trust is broken?  Trust is a way that we live our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. As we search and seek alone and in community, we learn what to trust, how to heal when trust is broken, and how to adapt to new situations as they come our way.

The students are at a point in the RE year where they have gotten to know each other, our routines, and rituals. I hope that we have built a sense of trust -- we do not owe each other, but we are growing love and light, as Hafiz says. I was looking at the elementary RE covenant recently and realized that it looks an awful lot like classroom rules, not a covenant or a testament to our spiritual community. We are missing the heart of the document -- the why and what matters. We are at a point to more fully embrace the 7 Principles. I am not sure how we will do it, but I trust that the class will guide the process.

“The great end in religious instruction, is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own….In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul; to bring understanding, conscience and heart into earnest vigorous action on religious and moral truth, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” 
-William Ellery Channing

turtlesLast night, I had an incredible nature experience -- a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience that is both life-affirming and humbling. I watched 90 loggerhead turtles hatch and race from their nest to the ocean. As I crouched close to the sand, it struck me that this wonder is a great analogy for education. 

In preparation for the turtle hatching, volunteers had done all they could to help ensure the turtles’ survival. Only one out of every 5,000 sea turtle babies survives. From moving the nest, to erecting a black cloth chute, the volunteers created a structure to help guide the turtles to their survival and healthy adulthood. 

The idea of creating a structure and establishing as much safety as possible struck me. As educators, we create a structure of routines, objectives, and lessons. In religious education, we use the 7 Principles and other Unitarian Universalist doctrine to inform our context. In making decisions about the interventions for the turtles, the volunteers used research and lots of love. So too, we design the lessons, spaces, and experiences for RE with research and love. We hope that the chute that we build will guide as many students as possible, while also allowing enough room for them to travel independently and pursue the route that makes the most sense to them. 

The turtles certainly seemed to do their own thing. Several turtles decided to turn around at various points on their way to the water. They climbed persistently back towards the nest -- and one even got back in! Some moved so quickly they were hard to see, while others seemed to dawdle. Some seemed to travel together, while others moved on their own. Some pushed against the black fabric of the guiding chute. As they approached the ocean, most kept right on course into the water, while others decided to move out onto the beach to explore. 

As we begin this year of religious education together, I hope that we are providing a path for the diverse students and volunteers to feel safe and cared for. My intention is for the lessons, activities, projects, and service events to inspire and bring people together and move us all towards something greater. Within the structure that we are creating, I aspire to leave room for exploration, independence, leadership, differences of opinion, and growth. As William Ellery Channing said, we are hoping to stir up and awaken our students -- then we get to see where they will go. I am looking forward to many incredible shared experiences with USNF this year.

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