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What should we do with the boys?

Unitarian Universalist religious educators try to make Sunday school appealing to boys as well as girls.
By Neil Chethik
January/February 2003 1.1.03

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The eight-year-old boy was puzzled. In his first years of Sunday school at the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, Ontario, he'd surely noticed the attention paid to women's rights. But on this morning, the feminist message was especially robust. It was International Women's Day, after all, and his teachers were impassioned as they led students in naming women leaders, women heroes, and the court cases that had brought equal rights to Canadian women.

Finally, the puzzled boy spoke his mind. "This feminism stuff is interesting," he told his teachers, "but when are we going to have a class on boyism?"

Eight-year-olds are not the only Unitarian Universalists asking questions about gender and religious education. In a movement where just over half the clergy is female, where a great majority of religious education leaders are women, and where feminism is embedded in the principles, parents and education leaders are for the first time wondering aloud if boys are getting what they need from the church schools they attend. "It's a subtle thing, but the issue comes up all the time," says the Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews, minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York. "Teachers come to me and say: 'The boys are bored with the material. They're acting out inappropriately. They're speaking out in class. What should we do with the boys?'"

It's a good question. And a sensitive one.

Over the last several decades, the Unitarian Universalist movement has been closely aligned with the second wave of feminism. Many women—and men—fought energetically to transform the cultural stereotypes of dominant male and submissive female and worked to reform laws that fed those stereotypes. Liberal religious education changed during this period too; increasingly, it highlighted the contributions of women while adopting a noncompetitive style championed by many feminists.

While educators say the results have been mostly positive for girls, they're not so sure about the boys. The Unitarian Universalist Association, which reports that nearly 62,000 students are currently enrolled in our congregations' church schools, does not keep statistics on how many of those students are boys. But conversations with more than two dozen parents and religious educators indicate that boys tend to be less interested than girls in religious education, more likely to misbehave in class, and less inclined to stay in church school into their teenage years and beyond.

In the stark words of Michael Gurian, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Washington, and author of the book Girls and Boys Learn Differently: "Religious education isn't set up for boys. That's the UU reality."

While not all religious educators agree, they acknowledge that our church schools tend to be geared for what one teacher calls "quiet learners." The dominant format—especially in the critical grade-school years—is "read, discuss, and do a craft." A story is read or told aloud, a conversation ensues, and then the children use paintbrushes, crayons, glue, and other materials to create artwork that relates to the story.

Unfortunately, the less-than-quiet learners are often less than captivated by this style. These students fidget or fight during the story and discussion, educators report, and sometimes use the small crafts as small arms. Most of these educators acknowledged that the restless children are usually boys. "Boys are different, in a general sense," concludes the Rev. Elizabeth Benjamin, who has been minister of religious education for fifteen years in Ottawa. "On the whole, they seem to have a greater need to move around. We need to give them effective ways to use their energy."

Not long ago, Benjamin found a way to do that. She stumbled upon a book called Learning to Play, Playing to Learn: Games and Activities to Teach Sharing, Caring, and Compromise, by Charlie Steffens and Spencer Gorin, which contains moving-around games designed to teach fairness, cooperation, and other qualities. "When I read that book," Benjamin says, "I just wanted to throw all the curricula out the window. These games taught many of the values we're trying to teach, but they did it in a fun way."

Benjamin explains how she used one of the games in a lesson on how children can effectively deal with bullies. She and the children began the lesson by discussing various bully situations. The children agreed that rather than confronting bullies, it would be best, in most cases, to seek support from their peers. Then, instead of following up the discussion with a craft project, Benjamin led the children in a spirited game of "Rattlesnake Tag," outlined in Learning to Play, Playing to Learn. In the game, a blindfolded child tries to tag another child who is shaking a rattle. The pair are encircled by the rest of the children, who join hands and help the "tagger" by collectively herding her toward the rattler. Benjamin recalls: "It was lively, it was fun, and I think we got across the message that we can work together to help each other. . . . There are more ways to teach our principles than through stories, books, and conversation."

The Rev. Frank Robertson, minister emeritus of religious education at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, spent forty years as a religious educator. He agrees that boys tend to benefit when religious education takes place outside the traditional classroom setting. Robertson says he used to ferry his students to an indoor ice-skating rink, where they played a vigorous game of Broomball. The kids wore boots as they played hockey using brooms and a ball in place of a puck. "Everyone is sliding, slipping, and having fun," Robertson says. "It's a game that almost anyone, regardless of skill, can play."

But is this really religious education? Robertson says yes, emphatically. "We have to be advocates for the total child. We have to dismantle the prejudice against children who might have needs other than a highly structured Sunday morning."

He explains further: "If you take our purposes and principles, we are trying to implement certain values. We want children to build relationships, to learn a sense of awe and wonder, to become ethical people. All of that can happen in a Broomball game. We also want children to know they are unique and have unique gifts. If they happen to excel in Broomball, and not reading or crafts, then that's their unique gift. Not to have physicality as part of our programs is to negate their personhood." There seems to be a consensus among Unitarian Universalist educators that incorporating more physical play, and more nonclassroom activity, would help keep boys interested and probably satisfy many girls as well.

So what about the themes, the content, of our religious education classes? Are boys getting what they need in this arena?

In a lot of cases, Robertson says, the answer is no. He points out that when it comes to male heroes, "we value men in social justice and the intellectual realm: Schweitzer, Channing, Emerson. These are great men. But many of the boys can't relate. Our blind spot is that we haven't cherished the great physical men: Michael Jordan, for example. He exemplifies the triumph of physical conditioning, of commitment, of teamwork."

Robertson also thinks competition, a traditionally male characteristic, has been devalued in the Unitarian Universalist classroom. What's wrong with games that involve winners and losers? he asks. "Do we want to turn our boys away from UU churches because we're too cowardly to admit that competition is fundamental to our democratic society? The question is not: Should there be competition? The question is: How can we learn to be appropriately happy when we win, and to be happy for someone else who beats us in a competition?"

Gurian, the Spokane writer whose books include The Wonder of Boys and A Fine Young Man, agrees that some churches "threw out the good with the bad" when they shifted the focus of education in the 1960s and 1970s. The father of two girls, Gurian says he supports the greater focus on female heroes and accomplishments and the teaching of feminist spirituality in church school. But he believes that in their efforts to eradicate patriarchal thinking, some educators lost sight of boys' need to learn what Gurian calls "heroic spirituality," which focuses on protecting others, accepting responsibility, and fighting for what's right in the larger world.

"One of the reasons churches exist is to teach males what is good and ethical," Gurian said in an interview. "Males want to be socialized. Because boys have more testosterone, because they're more impulsive than girls, they want to know: What contains me? What do I do with my power? UU religious education is very haphazard now because we're afraid to step on any toes."

As these arguments indicate, Gurian bases much of his analysis on what he sees as the differences in male and female biology. He acknowledges that biology has been misused in the past to maintain sexist cultural systems: Because women bear children, many chauvinists have argued, women should stay home with those kids. Gurian disavows this perspective, but says it's wrong to act as if boys and girls are the same biologically.

In fact, he contends, good research shows that boys and girls tend to learn at different rates and have different educational strengths and weaknesses. Females, for example, tend to have stronger connective pathways than males between the various lobes of their brains. This, Gurian says, translates into better language and fine-motor skills among girls. Meanwhile, the higher testosterone level of boys tends to make them more assertive and self-reliant. Gurian says if more religious educators accepted these tendencies, they might reshape their classes in ways that work better for both genders.

While Gurian has no qualms about putting the conversation in gender terms, others are more circumspect. Kate Beasley, director of religious education at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina, says: "I prefer to stay away from generalities because it puts certain expectations on our kids. We have done this to our girls for generations. We want to pigeonhole kids. The danger is we don't see children as individuals."

Beasley has three children of her own, including two sons. She says her sons were quite different from each other as they grew up; one was very active while the other was quiet and cerebral. "In teaching," she says, "it's important to teach to the temperament of the individual child, not the gender. She's also not convinced that biology plays as big a role as socialization does in shaping boys and girls. "I would challenge the idea that boys are inherently more active."

If there is ongoing disagreement over the inherent differences between boys and girls, there is considerably less discord on another gender-related point: Men are needed in the leadership and teaching ranks of religious education programs.

Kate Erslev, religious education director at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boulder, Colorado, says that when she started as a religious education director seventeen years ago in nearby Fort Collins, virtually all the teaching positions were held by women. She became convinced that this under-representation of male teachers contributed to a high male dropout rate. "It's a closed system when you have all women," she says. "We needed men who could help create a masculine zone."

Erslev began recruiting men vigorously and within about three years reached her goal of equal numbers of women and men in the teaching ranks. There were snags along the way. She remembers, for example, receiving a call from a male corporate executive who was having second thoughts after agreeing to teach five-year-olds. The man told Erslev: "I can do a presentation in front of twenty-five executives, no problem. But I can't sleep at night at the thought of teaching seven or eight kindergartners."

Erslev agreed to attend the executive's kindergarten class until he got comfortable." Within two weeks," she says, "he was down on his knees, wrestling and growling with the kids. He ended up teaching for four years."

Erslev, who develops religious education materials part-time, says the value of male teachers is apparent for both boys and girls. Boys benefit from having a same-sex adult in the class, someone who can understand their particular interests and fears. Both genders, meanwhile, benefit from having the diversity of style and approach that men bring to a predominantly female avocation.

Given the recent priest sexual-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, are Unitarian Universalist religious educators concerned about putting more men in charge of church-school classrooms? Those I spoke with respond to that question with a resounding "no." They say that as long as safeguards are in place—teacher screening and team teaching, among others—the possibility that any teacher might abuse his or her charges can be minimized.

The bigger concern, they say, is how to get more men to volunteer. The Rev. Greg Stewart, minister of religious education at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, says he sets aside half of the teaching slots for men. When the women's slots are filled, he simply stops recruiting women and focuses on men. He and other church-school leaders say they have the most success signing up men when they tell the potential recruits exactly why it's important for men to be involved and what they think the particular man would bring to the children.

The struggle to involve men in religious education extends to the top levels of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Rev. Patricia Hoertdoerfer, the UUA's children, family, and intergenerational programs director, acknowledged in an interview that most of the curricula available from her office "speak more to the strengths we tend to find in girls." Why is this the case? "A lot of our curricula are written by women," Hoertdoerfer said. "A lot of the curricula staff are women."

Hoertdoerfer said there is now a "heightened awareness" in her department of boys' religious education, but she knew of no Unitarian Universalist curricula designed for boys or men; there are several specifically for girls and women. "I've tried to elicit or solicit [male-oriented] material," she said, "but we don't receive it."

Some churches have developed such material on their own. During the 2000-2001 church year, all of the boys in the fourth/fifth grade class at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas, stopped coming to class, says Cynthia Mellor-Crummey, one of the teachers. At first, Mellor-Crummey says, "I took it very personally." Eventually, however, she called together the children and their parents and asked how she could serve them better.

Mellor-Crummey recalls: "The kids were very vocal about not wanting to be told what to do anymore. They wanted to write plays and put them on for the younger kids—to do creative things, basically." The church's educators responded by creating a monthly social event that has included watching movies and going bowling. "The boys have come out of the woodwork for this," Mellor-Crummey reports, and girls are showing up as well.

The Rev. Jaco ten Hove, minister at Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi, Maryland, is president of the Unitarian Universalist Men's Network (UUMeN), a continental group that works to improve programming for boys and men in our congregations. He says UUMeN would like to work with the UUA Lifespan Faith Development office to design more "boy-friendly" curricula and to train teachers how better to meet the needs of boys. He says he was encouraged last summer when, at the annual UUA General Assembly, an overflow crowd of (mostly women) religious educators showed up for a UUMeN-sponsored workshop on "Designing a Boy-Friendly Religious Education Program."

Ten Hove agrees with religious educators that an important step in making church school more enticing to boys is to bring more men into the teaching ranks. He adds, however, that congregations also can help by expanding their vision of religious education, moving it outside the classroom walls. Ten Hove, a Unitarian Universalist since the age of six, says the most important religious education experiences in his childhood involved picnics, holiday parties, and rummage sales.

He recalls one incident: "When I was about twelve, my father and another guy were running the tool table at the rummage sale. And at one point, they decided to put me in charge. It wasn't a big deal to them. I just had to be there to watch the table and take money. But I remember sitting up proud, just knowing that these adults would trust me to run the tool table."

This is an example of religious education at it most compelling, ten Hove says, and it offers inspiration for expanding the vision of church schools in all directions. "We're a linguistic, mathematically oriented culture right now, and that's what gets rewarded. We have to remember that there are many different kinds of intelligences. Great athletes are geniuses, in a way—they have kinesthetic intelligence. There's also interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, musical intelligence. Yes, we need a grounding in curriculum, but there's a lot more to religious education than what happens in a classroom."

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