Friday, August 12, 2011

VBS Reflection and Introspection

We've just wrapped up our week of Vacation Bible School at St. Peter's and though I was happy to teach for it, I am glad it is finished. This is due mostly to the fact that my daughter Ruth was born Saturday night (roughly 36 hours before the start of VBS) and my sleep schedule has been understandably interrupted.

First let me get a couple of complaints out of the way so I can focus the bulk of this blog post on other things. For the record, we used CPH's Big Jungle Adventure for our curriculum (their 2012 curriculum is Amazing Desert Journey, if you're interested).

I do NOT believe that Vacation Bible School is a good place to encourage the students to go out and engage in personal evangelism (telling their friends or family members about Jesus). No matter your schedule, you are FLYING through each lesson, you're skimming the surface of things, and before you know it, they're singing, making crafts, and doing other things throughout the day. VBS is not catechesis that leads toward church membership, and not all of the kids in VBS are going to be members of your church, anyway. My kids will be doing good if they remembered some of the five main ideas or five key Bible verses (one of each per day), much less be able to articulate the Christian faith with any substantial coherence. VBS is just a sampler. Yes, some good stuff is being taught, but we shouldn't try and make VBS a highly abbreviated, yet complete, presentation of the faith and life of the Christian. To do so is simply to jam too much into it. Just let VBS be what it is, a chance to teach the kids a FEW things that can actually sink in a bit and a primer for other instruction that will come later (Sunday School, Christian dayschool, and catechesis, not to mention anything their parents may teach them at home). But what they are given in VBS is NOT sufficient for them, especially only on DAY THREE to be encouraged to go out and share the hope that is in them with others. I'm sorry, it's just irresponsible to send out little children out so ill equipped for the task of evangelism. I'm not saying that children should NEVER share their faith with others, I'm just saying that VBS isn't structured to prepare them to do so.

My other complaint was about today's lesson. There was actually some really good stuff in it (Revelation 22 and 22, the New Jerusalem and so forth) that I was able to draw connections to Holy Baptism. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-Heaven. The problem is that, as is common, we're talking about our "heavenly home" (as opposed to our current earthly home). I'm not saying that CPH is promoting the notion of an eternity of souls floating in Heaven forever detached from bodies, and it's not too much to tell kids (especially the older ones) that just as Christ was raised from the dead in His body, we too will be resurrected in our bodies. We're not gnostics or Platonists - the body is a good creation of God; our bodies are gifts from God. I would have liked to see the resurrection of the body emphasized more when teaching the kids about the life everlasting (or maybe I just missed it - it's possible, it's been a long week).

What else to say? Even with 3rd through 6th graders, the more teachers or teachers' aides you have, the better. Maintaining order is not easy in VBS because you don't have much discipline leverage other than expulsion. VBS is like herding cats. It just is. You're kinda already behind the 8-ball just in the name of it: Vacation Bible School. The first and last words are more or less in conflict with each other. It's a school, they're learning about the Bible, they're learning about Jesus, but at the same time it's not school, it's vacation. It's not full blown school, and they know it. They get milk and cookies, they get to sing fun songs, they get to do crafts. They're not stuck in desks memorizing multiplication tables and doing homework.

My preference, just like when I substitute teach, is to teach the oldest kids. The more I can treat them like adults, and relate to them like adults, the better. My approach is to set the bar high in terms of behavioral expectations, and they'll rise to the challenge. This probably works better in "real" school, but it also probably works better when you only have one or two grades in the same room; otherwise you have too broad a range of maturity levels - it's not so bad to expect a room full of 6th graders to act more like 9th graders, but if you also have 5th, 4th, and maybe a few 3rd graders, that's too tall an order. I've heard it said "be firm to begin with; you can always lighten up later on." I think this is sound advice, but I must confess it's not my default. I don't want to be an authoritarian or disciplinarian. It's not that I don't want them to be disciplined, it's that I want them to already respect authority and be disciplined so that we can actually learn. It's more disruptive for a child to raise his hand, have me call on him, just so that I can grant him permission to use the restroom than it is for him to just go and return without bothering anyone else. Or the same for getting a drink of water. If you are trustworthy, just go do it, so that we can spend more of our time, energy, focus, concentration and attention on what we're actually here for.

VBS is for having fun, singing some good songs, learning a little bit about Christ, the Bible, the faith, and so forth. And on that front, it was a success. I'm glad I was a part of it. The kids had fun, they know more now than they did previously, and some of my VBS kids will also be my parish midweek students this fall (I think), so I'm looking forward to their receiving more in depth instruction in the coming school year.

If there is anything I wish I could farm out to someone else, it's crafts. I'm not into crafts. I'm not anti-craft, it's just not my bag.

I'm glad that we wait until August to do VBS. When I was a very young person, VBS was the first week after the school year. So you wait the whole year for first grade to be over, but then you go right back to the same building (I went to Lutheran day school and VBS was held in the school building, not at the church building) for another week of school. Bummer!

One great benefit of CPH's VBS curriculm from year to year is that every day the children learn about Jesus. Other companies do not make such a guarantee with their curricula, and in some, He isn't mentioned at all.

At our parish, VBS would be impossible without volunteers. We have great volunteers. Don't do VBS unless you have a healthy bench of volunteers.

One of my students made me a homemade card - a token of appreciation. I love those!

Our VBS classrooms (well, at least two of the three) are parish classrooms where Bible studies, board meetings, and Sunday School classes are held. It occurs to me that the kids sit around large tables, not individual desks. I think it would be easier to maintain a cleaner / better organized space if the students were in their own individual desks so that each student is responsible for his own area as opposed to shared tables which are everybody's (and thus, nobody's). Not that this will happen, nor that it is by any means necessary; I'm just curious if changing from tables to desks would be beneficial.

Our parish didn't go in "whole hog" with our VBS curriculum. For example, we did our own crafts and our own music strictly in-house. But we did use the DVD of opening and closing skits (don't have the extra bodies to be actors) and taught from the curriculum. Part of me questions whether the kids even need any kind of contrived theme like zoo, circus, adventure, jungles or deserts, popular movie knock-offs, etc. The kids are going to attend either way, aren't they? Maybe I'm jaded because I had the oldest class (or just because I'm an adult), but instead of trying to be cute or clever or all the other things that make eyes roll, just be a little more straight forward. You can still have fun, you can still sing fun songs, you can still set the tone for the day and tell the kids what today's main idea is. And maybe you can still do skits somehow. But I think the kids themselves don't really care if it's a rodeo or a journey or cartoon. More likely, I think it's just a lie that we adults tell ourselves, that the kids NEED a cute / appealing theme or else the whole VBS will fall apart. I think they would learn just as much and have just as much fun without the contrived theme. But let's say that next year we do what other churches have done and build our own VBS from scratch, and the theme is the Small Catechism, and each day the lesson is derived from a Chief Part (hmmm, might have to go six days instead of five). I don't think any kids would complain that they weren't on a journey to the center of the Earth, or palling around with a school of fish, or whatever. I think they'll just go with whatever we present them. Or maybe I'm completely wrong.

Also, check out the roots of Vacation Bible School according to the Vacation Bible School entry on Wikipedia.

I may have more VBS thoughts after this weekend, but for now I need to "recharge my batteries."