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New Season of Learning Begins Sept. 12

Some of the busiest people in Antiochian parishes currently, are teachers and church school directors preparing to kick off the 2010/2011 Sunday School year. Supporting all of this activity is the Department of Christian Education, headed by experienced educator Carole Buleza. was able to catch up with Carole and find out about how her department is making a difference in the lives of teachers and children in parishes all across the country. Last summer in a groundbreaking presentation at the Clergy Symposium at Antiochian Village, Carole outlined "a new way thinking about Orthodox catechesis." 

1. Can you articulate for us your philosophy of Orthodox Christian Education, as it has developed over your years of experience?

My philosophy of successful Orthodox Christian Education developed first of all from my childhood. I was raised in a home where Sunday was for church and visiting, the holy days meant going to church, and the very special holy days involved special meals. I saw my mother pray the Divine Liturgy when she could not make it to church, and my dad read the Bible. Our church family included children in weddings and baptismal celebrations, and I attended several viewings and funerals. I knew I was different than the other kids in school—for instance, when asked to write about a favorite holiday the other children wrote about Christmas, and I wrote about Pascha. Church was an old country “village” experience for me. The term, “socialization,” describes this way of learning how to be Christian.

The home is one part of successful Orthodox Christian Education. Church schools are next. There is a refrain in Orthodox circles that is often used to explain our lack of success in catechizing our children-- “We are using the Protestant Sunday School model, instead of the child learning the faith in the home.” However, I disagree. I believe we need “Sunday School,” or “Church School,” for several reasons. First, because we are eastern in a western world; we comprise a small percentage of the Christians in North America and are at risk of being absorbed. Our children need to learn that western society has underlying values that are opposite of ours, and I’m not talking about the secularists here, but the Christians as well. For example, we kiss the hand of the bishop and priest in a society that values egalitarianism; we value community over individualism; we have rather strict ritual and moral codes that we live by in a society that values freedom of choice. Our children need to be with their peers in a directed manner to understand why we do “what we do differently” than most of their classmates. On the positive side, they need to reflect together on the great depth of our Tradition and share their feelings about kissing the cross, walking under the epitaphion, and praying to a saint.

Church schools are a community within the church. All the aspects of good community life—praying together, recognizing birthdays, cooperating with each other—can be present, and should be, so that what we are teaching is lived. It is my contention that faith is “caught not taught— “ in the words of a cliché. In my terms, faith, especially Orthodoxy, is passed “from heart to heart.” The teacher who is personally seeking Christ, who cares for each child, who knows the faith and has skills appropriate to the situation can truly forward those children on the path of salvation.

The final component for successful Orthodox Christian Education is the curriculum. The materials need to inspire our students, insofar as words and pictures on a page are able. The curriculum needs to be goal-oriented and include accountability. You may think, “Why should the children take tests in Church School—give them a break?” But then, ask yourself, “Is knowing your faith more or less important than knowing algebra?” I’ve not heard any complaints from teachers using The Way, The Truth, and The Life. In fact, some classes have added questions to the exams. If our children do not know our faith, and see it as life-giving, it is easy for them to fall into the stream of Protestant Christianity .

In summary, my philosophy of Orthodox Christian Education is that success hinges on parents, the church school, and the curriculum. Each should work well individually, and together, for “passing on of the faith” to occur. One more thing needs to be said. The greater community of the Church needs to be faithful to Christ. If we are a welcoming, nurturing Church community with adults who greet the children and ask them about school, sports, or other interests, we have a greater chance of those children staying with the faith.

2. What practical changes do you believe need to take place in the way we approach Christian Education and Sunday School?

We need to begin by drawing a picture of “Orthodox Goodperson.” What does Orthodox Goodperson do that makes him an example for our children? What specific knowledge of Orthodoxy forms the foundation of his life? At the clergy symposium this summer I asked a small group of priests to draw this individual. They wrote phrases around him like, “attends church every Sunday,” “visits the sick,” “comes to confession,” “interested in the faith,” “observes the fasts,” “forgives,” “generous.” Afterward I asked, “Is this what our curriculum is teaching our children to be? Indeed, these can be found in our texts, but are they emphasized to the point that when our children are in high school, they have these attributes? The answer is, no.

I see the curriculum as the locus for a new way thinking about Orthodox catechesis. We need to rewrite the curriculum so it holds out “two hands” to the students—firm knowledge of the faith, and spiritual maturity. More specifically, the knowledge we offer must serve spiritual maturity, clearly and effectively. Every one of our children in Sunday School wants to be closer to Jesus, and wants their faith to make sense. When we focus on spiritual maturity, that will happen.

For the clergy symposium, I prepared a power-point that explains my proposal for an authentically Orthodox catechesis. In it I show how five aspects of spiritual maturity can become the foundation for a new scope and sequence chart. It can be viewed HERE. After my presentation, I led several exercises that explored the imagery in our theology. I showed the priests that we have everything we need to teach Orthodoxy using multiple intelligences—which itself is a nod to our eastern way of knowing. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

The accountability factor needs to be built in as well. Although I wasn’t able to complete the curriculum revision, I found the most important information in each of the Kindergarten through Grade 5 OCEC texts and put it together in a program called, “Knowing Your Faith.” This can be found on both the Teachers’ and Directors’ pages. This year we are adding a little book, a “Passport for the Journey,” to the Kindergarten level. I wrote an article about this which can be found on my website. The parents help the children learn what they need to know for the Kindergarten year.

Change will only happen if curriculum, teachers, and parents are coordinated. Greater support needs to be offered for parents, which is happening primarily on the internet, through websites, and through the Orthodox Christian Parenting Facebook page. Most importantly, we need to return to an appreciation of Church and strive to “become Church.” We need to train the children to “become Church.”

3. What are the Orthodox Institutes and how are you structuring them this fall?

The Institutes are continuing education events, that offer a choice of courses. The Orthodox Institute at Antiochian Village is the main event, the first weekend every November. This year is our 10th Anniversary and it will be spectacular. The theme is “Icons: Windows to Heaven.” Offering a keynote speaker, 15-18 courses, the museum and bookstore, and a visit to the gravesite of St. Raphael, it is a wonderful time of learning, sharing and fellowship.

The diocesan Orthodox Institutes, or “mini-Institutes,” developed because many of our teachers were young parents who had neither the time nor the finances to travel to the Village for four days. The diocesan Institutes are one-day events, with a theme and associated courses, as well as workshops for teachers and directors. This year we are having two diocesan Institutes, in Los Angeles in September, and in Toronto in October, both with the theme “Sharing Our Faith.” The Orthodox Institutes offer well-known presenters, and an opportunity for Orthodox of all jurisdictions to learn and enjoy fellowship. Brochures are available on our website.

4. What words of advice do you have for new teachers as we look forward to the launch of the next Christian Education season in September?

First, seek the Lord, yourself. Then think about the students. Realize that each of your students is made in the image and likeness of God. Each of them is on the path of salvation.

Be sensitive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit--if they have something that needs to be discussed, put aside the lesson for that day. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find the answer before our next class.”

When you sit down to prepare a lesson, put on Orthodox music, or Ancient Faith Radio, pray, and find joy. Then begin your planning. Always remember that Orthodoxy (what you teach) is about LIFE, so consider yourself a “coach for Orthodox living.” Most importantly, let them know you care about them.

5. Tell us about your work with the OCEC and how the ministry of the organization has made a difference for parishes everywhere.

The Orthodox Christian Education Commission was created in the 1950’s to meet the need for Orthodox educational materials. The two names associated with its charter are Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Mrs. Sophie Koulomzin. They gathered people from various jurisdictions, and began writing texts and programs. I became involved with the OCEC upon my appointment as Director of the Antiochian Department of Christian Education, and also because I had experience writing Sunday School texts.

When the discussion of curriculum revision began, I expressed my frustration, shared by many, with the inconsistent attendance at Church School. Each June we truly wondered what, if anything, the children had learned. I proposed that any revision begin with by determining exactly what we need the children to know, and that the children be accountable for that knowledge. If the questions and prayers were limited to a minimum and reinforced throughout the year, even the child who attended 50% of the time could finish the year with a firm knowledge several important aspects of our faith. The Commission agreed and 100 questions and prayers became the “educational standards” for the text for 8th grade/high school text, The Way, The Truth, and The Life. Containing the basics of our faith, it was to be the flagship for the revision of the lower grade texts. After its publication, I initiated the OCEC teacher-training program. Unfortunately, I was unable to continue my work with the Commission for personal reasons.

As to the impact of the organization, Fr. Schmemann and Mrs. Koulomzin brought to Orthodox Christian Education two aspects that were lacking: the focus on liturgy, and understanding of developmental psychology (Piaget ).These were woven into the books that the OCEC published. Connie Tarasar, John Boojamra, and Fr. Paul Kucynda continued the work. John Boojamra’s contribution was to see the critical importance of the family in faith formation, and by extension, the necessity of educating adults in the faith. As to the impact of the OCEC—simply put, the Commission is the tree that bore much fruit—the organization responsible for planting Orthodox Christian Education in North America.

Click here to read an historic treatise on religious education from an Orthodox perspective, written by a convert priest in 1938.