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Interview with Laila Ferris: Integrated Learning in the Digital Age

Laila Ferris has devoted 25 years and counting to serving as church school director at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, El Paso, Texas. Presently, there are 37 students enrolled and classes are organized by groups of two grade levels, plus grades 8-12 together as one class.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes? 

We use a combination of curricula/materials from the OCEC and from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to support our students’ learning. We also use online lessons provided by our Archdiocese Department of Christian Education. The teachers develop lesson plans that use active and engaging learning activities through which the lessons are taught and learned.  We are presently working towards developing more opportunities for learning activities via apps and web-based programs for our students (as the digital generation) to expand their learning experiences. Our plan is to be able to purchase iPads for use in the classrooms to support digital projects. But in the meantime, the church school staff will continue to use their personal devices to grow our instructional lessons digitally.

Are there any ethnic components to your church school/Christian education ministry?  

We have a diverse ethnicity among our students, whose connection to each other is their faith. We incorporate ethnic diversity in our lessons with our students for Feast day celebrations/family traditions and music. For example, in preparation for Pascha, our children learn to sing "Christ Is Risen" in English, Arabic and Greek, as well as learning the responses to "Christ Is Risen, Indeed He Is Risen" in languages other than English.

Does your church school participate in Humanitarian projects as a group?                                                                             

Our church school supports and participates in our parish's and Teen SOYO's Humanitarian projects such as food drives, clothing drives, and toy drives. We also participate in our parish's annual Senior Citizen Christmas Dinner and Dance. Every December, approximately 400 community senior citizens living in Federal Housing Authority retirement centers attend. Students pack goodie bags for the senior citizens, serve them at the dinner, assist them in several ways, and even dance with them. We feel that connections are important to the well-being of many people, but the actual act of serving others, in person, will give our students life experiences which will grow their sense of empathy in the Christian way. This is an integral part of who we are to be and following our faith in becoming servant leaders.

What are some church school challenges/issues that you did not expect to encounter, and how have you addressed them?  

Challenges provide us with learning experiences and allow us to become better at what we do to support the teaching and learning of our faith with our students. Challenges we have experienced are inconsistent attendance with some students over the years, and students not being on time for opening prayer with our parish priest. The church school staff have been diligent in letting students know that we miss them when they and their parents are not present. We have implemented an incentive program for students who are present before opening prayer, known as our "Bible Buck" program. Students earn one "Bible Buck" for every Sunday that they are present prior to opening prayer. We open our "Bible Buck" store for students to purchase religious items for themselves or family members. The students now remind their parents to make sure that they get them to church school on time.

What type(s) of training and resources specifically for church school directors can you recommend?                       

I believe that time is critical to ensure that church school staff can plan and discuss the upcoming year, share successful lessons and information, and work together as a team to support all the students in our church school. I also feel that it is important for the church school staff to use their abilities and knowledge to engage the students in learning about their faith through a variety of resources and instructional methods. These include hands-on activities, digital activities, and creative projects. The teacher/student relationship is also important. Church school staff need to get to know their students, their families, their interests, and their abilities. We can then better serve them through the right variety of resources and activities, and ensure their growing understanding of the Faith, not only in church school, but as they participate in Liturgy and practice at home and in their everyday life. The responsibility to teach the children and teens of our parish is an awe-inspiring responsibility and the trust given to us to teach them is truly honorable and humbling. We constantly remind ourselves of the quote stating, "our children are our future." But I also believe that they are our "present" which makes our work with them even more important, for the what occurs in the present ultimately impacts the future. Hence, what we teach and what the students learn today, alongside their families, the parish priest, and the parish family, is how they will grow in their faith so that they may become followers of Christ for all of their lives.