When marketers want to learn about people, they collect data about them. They then use that information to improve how they communicate about their products or services. Good teaching follows a similar pattern: learn more about the children in your care and use that information to connect lessons with the realities of their everyday spiritual lives.
Education professor Geneva Gay calls this kind of informed engagement ‘culturally responsive teaching’ (CRT). It involves recognizing the significant effect that cultural contexts and individual interests have on children’s learning and then leaning into those differences when designing programs and activities. Instead of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which often relies on developmental stereotypes of children, CRT celebrates and leverages diversity as a learning aid.
We learn a lot about children by observing them, but CRT also depends on opportunities for children to talk about themselves. Asking open-ended questions, either in person or via an online or paper survey, can tell us a lot more about kids. Topics to explore might include: What do you like to do when you aren’t here? Who do you look up to? What are you good at? What are your favorite places in the community? What are your hopes and dreams? What groups do you identify with?
When you ask personal questions, let children know that you take their answers seriously. Thank them for taking the time to share. Summarize their responses to show that you have heard them. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. And tell them you plan to use the information they’ve provided to shape the spiritual work you will do together.
Then make good on your promise. When you tell a story, emphasize elements that connect with their interests. You might even embellish the story with details that connect with particular children. For example, a meditating porcupine might prefer to sit under a maple tree like Sheena or have two annoying sisters like Mike. Or a yoga practicing rhinoceros might dream of dancing with Alvin Ailey like Jamaal.
Use any patterns you notice in children’s responses to reshape group activities for greater engagement. If several children aspire to enter helping professions, increase the number of opportunities they have to collaborate. If some prefer solitude and others thrive on social interaction, offer activity options that satisfy both preferences. If working for social justice is a group priority, frame ethical discussions in terms of the issues they’ve named.
It can also be helpful to expand your list of spiritual exemplars to include the people children identify as their models and mentors. A nana who always has a kind word on a rough day, the neighborhood teen who takes time to show younger children how to skateboard, the stay-at-home dad who shovels everyone’s sidewalks without complaint – all offer lessons in compassion and care. Encourage children to emulate the embodied spirituality that they already admire.
Finally, don’t stop with just one or two ‘getting to know you’ sessions. Incorporate identity-sharing activities into group learning throughout the year. Invite children to create Identity Portraits or Identity Starbursts and post them in your group space. Visit them with their family at home, either in person or via video chat. Or meet up with families at their favorite neighborhood places.