Makerspace as RE is a new way in UU religious education that aligns with our legacy of
progressive, engaging, and important work with children and youth. Much has been written about this emergent educational approach, but a good overview can be found here. Missionalism is a religious approach that calls us to doing real work in the world as a people of faith. You can read more about how Missionalism and UUism intersect in this great short film by Texas minister Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford.
I am on vacation this week, but wanted to share with you some of the work I have been doing in the larger faith community, writing about UUCA’s innovative Mission: Makers Summer program, now in its second year. It’s an excerpt of a recent essay I wrote to describe how Makerspace RE and Missional UUism are a perfect match. If you are interested in going deeper than I am normally able to share about in these blog posts, understanding the philosophical grounding in one of our most popular programs and, frankly, our entire program, you may enjoy this post. It also describes in detail a couple of the big maker projects on tap this Summer at UUCA.
From the beginning, Unitarian and Universalist religious education has been uniquely
progressive. Universalists were first to create church-based programming especially for
children, in 1790. At first, the focus was on to teach working children to read, after founding father Benjamin Rush organized to create “First Day Schools” in every Philadelphia Universalist church. Children forced to work full-time, after all, were deprived of their right to receive basic education. At its core, this was a social justice issue. Churches had a set-aside time and space
where they could choose to teach what their leaders thought most essential, and most lacking, in at-risk children’s lives. In a time when many religious people thought that only the eternal soul mattered and earthly life was meant to be a challenge, Universalists were doing a kind of religious education meant to make life in this world better for children.
Unitarian and Universalist church school classes evolved to be more like catechism in the 1800s, mostly reciting and memorizing from the Bible. Unitarian William Ellery Channing responded vociferously to that approach, saying children deserved more than rote learning: “The great end in religious instruction . . . is not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own.”
Then Sophia Lyon Fahs went further, creating “curricula based on the philosophy that religious education should be grounded in the firsthand experiences of children.” Her curricula used teaching stories from around the world and human history, not just the Bible. And it was age graded, meaning that there was an understanding that children’s needs and challenges around faith development changed with age.
Angus MacLean built on Fahs work and reoriented RE pedagogy once again, emphasizing the family as the central site where faith formation happens. He also suggested that most of early learning should be experiential. His most notable claim was that “the method is the message”: the WAY we teach religious education should reflect its central goals. Children should be taught religion in religious ways, not authoritarian ones, because we believe that the learner is assimilating not just the explicit curriculum, but from the whole of the learning experience.
This history (and the work of many other unsung RE leaders) laid the groundwork for an
essential understanding. From the beginning, our UU heritage of religious education is one that has both supported children in a journey of faith and human development as an end to itself, as well as part of a larger mission to build a world more aligned with our values. We have seen Unitarian and Universalist religious education align and re-create itself according to our understanding of the greatest need on the part of the living learner, not to its proposed impact on their eternal soul. The very etymology of “religious education” clarifies our goals, in a poetic way: from the Latin religare (“to bind together”) and educere (“to draw out”.) We have seen our primary role as gathering, identity building, and bringing out the very best that inherently exists in a child. My interest is piqued, however, in another of the meanings for educere: “to send out”, like mission, whose Latin root missio means “to send”. Perhaps the next great change in UU religious education should be a mission to bind up and gather our young people, solidifying their sense of who they are as individuals and as part of a wider community, and then send them out into a world that needs them.
For Missional UUs, our theology’s great calling is to take our faith outside the church and to the wider world. We are called to be its hands and feet, doing faith as a verb. We are called to embody and manifest our theology’s teaching that we each have a divine spark, and to let that light shine, with work that is real. Missionalism is uniquely incarnational in this way. This call to active duty can be seen in our understanding of our actions in the world, not our beliefs, as the most important reflection of our faith. Forrest Church reminded us that we are a faith of deeds not creeds, and Rebecca Parker encouraged us to choose to bless the world. To be incarnational means we are active participants in the creation and realization of the beloved community. Where do children fit in? How can we embody the call to incarnational missionalism in religious education, while staying connected to our legacy of intentionally child-centered, experiential, and developmentally-appropriate faith development? I believe Maker Culture is a valuable part of a new way to create opportunities for missional faith development.
Every Sunday in our Spirit Play program, I gather the children and we say together: We are Unitarian Universalists. We are a church of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. For 225 years we have succeeded in religious education programming and curricula that do the first two pretty well. For Missional UUs, the question is this. How do we best develop and teach a “helping hands” approach that respects the unique needs of children, yet prepares them for the work we are called to do in a world that needs us–all of us– to do more than think and love?
Ask adults what they remember from Sunday School and you’ll hear memories of doing. That convinces me that religious education should be as hands-on, innovative, and creative as possible. Like Makerspaces. Around the country, “Maker Culture” is developing. Communities, libraries, and schools have installed “Makerspaces” that encourage kids to design, collaborate, and create. According to the Makerspace Playbook: “Makerspaces serve as gathering points where communities of new and experienced makers connect to work on real and personally meaningful projects, informed by helpful mentors and expertise, using new technologies and traditional tools.”
If we ground our children in the idea that real problems can be approached and solved, and support them in building those skills, we just might be making the next logical leap in UU religious education pedagogy.
Wondering what missional makerspace RE looks like in real life programs? An overview: We begin with a grounding that reminds us of our UU identity, and how we are called to do all we can to bless the world, and a reminder about the nature of makerspace learning. The key is to allow children as much freedom as possible to comprehend a real challenge, then plan and act in ways that seek to solve a problem–or at least a piece of it, using real world technology and tools. (A word of caution: Adult facilitators need support and reminders in stepping back, letting kids do as much as possible, especially to allow failure and reboot, where maker culture tells us the real learning happens.) We work on our projects and come back to a circle to debrief and regroup, and send families home with info on how the kids can continue the learning or actions outside the church through the week.
We begin our Mission: Maker! Sundays in a circle, as described already, with a chalice lighting. We sing “Gathered Here” together, reminding us that we are called to act in one strong body, in the struggle and the power we hold as a gathered people. Instead of joys and sorrows, I ask them to share a problem or challenge in the world they know about, and that breaks their hearts, or to share a big problem they know is being fixed by human helpers. I share that we are called to help, to repair, and to bind up a broken world as UUs (and that many other faiths and peoples are working to do the same thing.) I ask them to consider that even children and youth can make a difference in the world, through real work with real tools, and that they are doing so in every country in the world. I tell a story or show a clip about a youth who has done something amazing to help fix a big problem. I ask them to come up to the altar I have prepared that day, which contains a variety of tools depending on our work projects–like a hammer, bandages, a key and lock, a spade, an iPad, a compass, a measuring tape, a telescope, a flashlight, and a small broom and dustpan. I ask them if they know about or have used any of these tools. I choose one of the altar items and describe how we are called to use the tools of our faith to dig deeper, look closer, unlock new ideas, find a new way, shine a light in dark places, see things differently, explore, clean up messes, heal, build, and repair what is fixable. I tell they are makers: of change, of meaning, of new possibilities. I remind them about how they
are supposed to use teamwork and lead as much as possible in our projects today, and that adults are there to support and collaborate, but not to be in charge. I describe what our maker projects today are, and send them out to do the work in activity centers. Later, a closing circle brings us back together to share our challenges, successes, and failures, as well as any further work that is planned on their projects.
Some of our Mission: Makers projects are described in some detail below, but it is important to unpack why and how missional RE for children should differ from missional work for adults. Missionalism as it has been described to date has concentrated on adult and sometimes multigenerational projects. Missional UUism calls us to engage deeply with the world around us, outside the church walls. It asks us to consider who, in our communities, our hearts break for. Yet it is often challenging to engage in this kind of missional work via a church RE program. Families are best suited to make choices and shepherd children around “heartbreak”, so I believe a multigenerational approach works best for such missional activities outside the church. But in a standard Sunday School RE program, what kind of activities would build missional muscles and also honor the work of Channing, Fahs and MacLean, urging us to prioritize experiential, developmentally appropriate, child-centered RE? Problem solving and project planning within church programs are developmentally appropriate ways for kids to encounter challenging issues in a safe space, and then expand toward the world with their skills. Our unique third place status, neither work nor home, allows us to think creatively and use our time to plant seeds for future action, so that children are better prepared to be justice-
workers as they grow. To that end, we can provide a kind of spiritual scaffolding in RE space, both preparing for and actively engaging with the foundational elements of missional work now.
In every makerspace project, we honor the developmental needs of the child and youth by
beginning with safe spaces and projects with a degree of risk (acceptable failure), where
children gain confidence. Projects that are successful and that kids are passionate about can be expanded to become congregational, multigenerational, community-based, or global in nature, looking more like previously described (adult) missionalism. Here are some examples of projects in our Mission: Makers! program.
Children building a Little Free Library, curating the content from our RE library (with discussion on which of our principles the book reflects), and placing near the church gave a perfect opportunity to talk about literacy. We explored how access to books is a key factor in learning outcomes, but is not equal across our community. Going further: A similar project we are working on is a Little Free Blessing Box, using the “Blessing Bags” our children and youth have been assembling to share with the local in-need population. A year of using these bags as our social justice project helped me see the deep desire families and kids had to engage meaningfully with our community’s sizable homeless/in need population. Families reported how grateful they were to have something real to share in those moments when a person approached them and asked for help: a small bag filled with snacks, water, bus fare, clean socks, warm gloves, and personal items, as well as a hand written note from our children. We want to multiply this effect by creating boxes around town, stocked with such care packs. Our kids will map out areas of our community most in need, seek permission from property owners, and place boxes in those areas, with each child having the opportunity to “adopt” and keep the box stocked for two weeks. A makerspace classroom will serve all year as a workshop for building both Little Free Library and Little Free Blessing boxes, and for project planning–with kids at the helm.
Makerspace projects can be also be meta. We are working to create a video about our second year of makerspace programming, with kids taking primary roles in the process. They will interview both their peers and adults, film and edit the finished product, then plan how to publicize and share it with other churches. By doing so, they will not only learn skills in videography and social media communication, but also take active roles in understanding why we engage in this kind of work, and how it reflects our seven principles and our church and RE mission. Going further: In a world where mass media and social justice go hand in hand, these are competencies that can help our children feel confident in using technology as a tool to take our faith into the world, to change it. Once you have a team of kids or youth who have can make, edit, and share a video, it provides a uniquely “safe” way for them to go out into the world to communicate and advocate outside the church walls.
Our kids thrive on DOING. It changes their brains and the way they see themselves: When we make things, we are more confident, more open, and less anxious about perfection. We naturally collaborate and take risks, and we begin to see ourselves as creators of the world around us, not passive consumers. We know our children need RE experiences that help them “take it home” every day of the week, in all their activities. Makerspace work lets them bring skills and passion into their daily lives. We can bring our UU values and theology to life when we build capacity in our kids for imagining, doing, helping, healing. We say we are the church of the open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. Makerspace work in RE programs can help make
that a reality.