4 Things I’ve Learned Teaching 4th Grade Sunday School

Robert Raikes
Robert Raikes (1736-1811), one of the founders of the Sunday School movement – Wikimedia

At some point in my life, it was bound to happen: I would be asked to teach Sunday School. And not the adult kind, which I’ve done several times and isn’t all that different from teaching college students — except that the audience is much more likely to have been awake more than ten minutes before a 9:30am start time. And not 8th grade Confirmation, which I’ve taught a few times and is like teaching college students with a shorter attention span and a lingering fear of cooties.

No, 4th grade Sunday School class.

Now, I really loved 4th grade. (Mrs. Zimmerhakl, if you’re reading this, you’re still one of my favorite teachers of all time.) And if there’s any genetic component to Sunday School teaching, I’m set: my dad taught S.S. and Confirmation; my mom was our S.S. superintendent; and I go to church with a woman whose S.S. teacher was my Grandma Peterson.

But I know next to nothing about pedagogy for that phase of childhood.

Thankfully, my wife (a pediatric occupational therapist with infinite patience and energy) is teaching with me (or, more properly, I’m teaching with her), and we’ve got a great group of rather attentive, if energetic, 4th graders. So I’m trying to throw myself into it. I’m even readying myself to bust out the flannelgraph!

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. I’ve had one good teaching idea — and I doubt I’ll top it

Every week we wrap up with a memory verse, related to a theme from our main story but taken from another part of Scripture. For the story of Moses’ mother sending him down river in a basket, we had talked a lot about fear, so the verse was “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3).

It’s not a long one, and 4th graders can probably remember it on their own. But I thought that this was one place where I might actually have some useful talent to apply: namely, that I’m a decent singer and guitar player, and used to write songs quite frequently. So I set the verse to a decently catchy melody and taught it to our class. (Better yet, I tried it out on our twins, who will turn three in December. They still ask for the “When I’m scared” song almost every night at bedtime, which is pretty endearing and flattering.)

Better yet, I had the bright idea of asking the kids to help “write” the verses: by suggesting things they were afraid of, then inserting them into the “When I (see a spider / cross a bridge / get my shots), I will trust in you” construction. If I do say so myself, it was a smashing success: even the boys caught themselves singing along, and there was even a request or two to sing it again the next week.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s as good an idea as I’m going to have. And my wife pointed out that the divider separating our room from the 5th graders wasn’t that thick, so I’ll probably have to leave the guitar at home from here on out. Rats.

2. 4th graders haven’t taken a lot of history classes

Here’s why I’m pretty sure I’ve already exhausted my great idea quota: because I thought I had a second one, and it went like this…

This past weekend was not only the moment when we talked about the Israelites being set free from slavery, but the 150th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. “What a perfect connection to develop!”, my history professor’s brain told itself. The only question was whether I should build in a few minutes on present-day slavery…

I thought that might be going a bit far so early in our experience together, but I did prepare a quick lesson on the use of Exodus in spirituals, and would have played a YouTube clip of Louis Armstrong singing “Go Down, Moses” were our church’s wireless signal stronger downstairs in the Sunday School area.

Alas, after hearing one student’s version of what the Civil War was about, I realized that I should have checked Minnesota’s state standards for social studies: U.S. history doesn’t show up until 5th grade, and the 19th century not until 6th. It’s one of many reminders I’m sure I’ll receive that I was an unusually nerdy 4th grader and probably shouldn’t trust my own experience to guide me…

3. I don’t know the Old Testament as well as I should

Rembrandt, Balaam and His Ass
Rembrandt, Balaam and His Ass (1626) – Wikimedia

Our curriculum for the fall is Moses-heavy, which means teaching from books of the Bible that (as I’ve blogged about recently) I don’t read often enough — and struggle to understand even when I do. So far we’ve covered Baby Moses afloat on the Nile, the Burning Bush, and the plagues and Passover. But even with those rather familiar stories, I found myself relying on my notes more than I’d expected. A bit of my internal monologue:

Oh yeah, Moses’ mother ended up being his nurse… Did Moses actually have a speech impediment, or do “slow of speech and tongue” and “faltering lips” mean something else?… God sent gnats and flies?

And looking ahead, I’m going to have to crack open the Book of Numbers for the first time in a while: our last class of the fall features the story of Balaam and his unusually verbal donkey.

4. Not to worry so much

It turns out that most of our students already have a pretty good grasp of the stories we’re telling — a credit to their parents, grandparents, and previous Sunday School teachers and Wednesday night leaders, no doubt. We might add a layer of connection or application, or better attach a detail or two that hadn’t stuck before, but we’re building on solid foundations.

And as my brother-in-law, with several years’ experience as a camp counselor, told me before we got started, enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins: so long as you seem interested and engaged, 4th graders will likely remain interested and engaged.

But more importantly, care goes a long way — in both directions. The mere fact that my wife and I show up, get to know these children, take an interest in them, listen to their joys and fears, and pray for them does not go unnoticed by children who don’t seem to miss anything (even when their focus appears to be directed elsewhere). And it certainly hasn’t escaped my attention that our students are pretty forgiving, or that they’re also taking the time to show up, listen, and take an interest in what we have to say.

Recently, author Graham Scharf contributed a reflection on the importance of early childhood to Christianity Today’s “This Is Our City” project. While he was primarily addressing the importance of parenting in the development of young children, I think that his larger theological argument also underscores the importance of Sunday School and other ministries to children and their families:

For Christians, there are three central theological reasons for loving young children and their parents – even if these actions did not have the kind of economic and cultural power that they do. First, Jesus calls little children to himself, and commands us to not only welcome them but also to become like them in order to enter the kingdom. Early childhood is designed by our wise Father as a time to receive and display his gracious rule. When we welcome children like Dylan [a 2nd grader Scharf taught, whose father was in prison for trying to kill his mother], we learn from those we love.

Second, in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus extols the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after 1 lost sheep. When we leave our self-absorption to love all families, especially families like Dylan’s with all their pain, and bring them the good news of Christ, there is rejoicing in heaven! Third, the church has something to offer that no other entity can offer: the gospel. Just as John the Baptist was sent before Jesus “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the wicked to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:17), the Father sends us to turn the hearts of parents to their children with the infinitely good news of reconciliation through the cross. Our presence manifests that reconciliation, and with our words we must announce it.

7 thoughts on “4 Things I’ve Learned Teaching 4th Grade Sunday School

  1. I’ve had the Balaam story show up before when I was teaching Sunday school. I’ve never quite understood the curriculum creators’ fascination with it. I guess it’s because it’s an animal story and therefore appealing to kids, but in context, it’s rather confusing. God tells Balaam to go ahead and go with Balak’s men, and then he gets angry and sends an angel to kill Balaam. What’s up with that? In the end, God tells Balaam something that my Bible translates to mean that he was running recklessly, but the footnote explains that whatever the Hebrew says is hard to translate. So perhaps Balaam was thinking, “Oh, God’s letting me go with Balak’s men now, so I guess I’ll curse the Isrealites like Balak wanted,” but honestly, that doesn’t seem consistent with Balaam’s previous refusal to go against God’s will. I consider this one of the hard passages of the Bible, so it really does make me scratch my head when it shows up in the curriculum.

    1. I totally agree on this one. Every time I read that passage, I am baffled by it. I wouldn’t want to try to explain it to fourth graders.

  2. You never bothered the 5th graders; do it again, no problem.

    I remember the Balaam lesson; have fun with that! Perhaps you want to sub a different lesson? 😉

    Content and delivery is important, yet I am convinced that how the teachers act out the Gospel is what the kids respond to and remember the most.

  3. Interesting observations. It is also difficult for me to teach younger kids. Since I have a masters in Adult Education, I want to teach them as adults. However, I have to step back and remember the differences between teaching adults and children. Really tough as the learning styles of children rapidly change with age and it is hard to get in the right mindset as well. I usually will only sub for a kids class if absolutely needed.

    I really like your point about needing to know the Old Testament better. I am glad that my father gave me a good grounding in both testaments. My father really likes history and would also preach a lot of sermons from the Old Testament. Knowing the Old Testament gives me a much better understanding of the New Testament and more importantly the new covenant we have with Christ.

    Hopefully this all makes sense. I am recovering from having my wisdom teeth extracted yesterday.

  4. Thanks for all the comments! Especially those on what to do with Balaam — we have been thinking about going off-curriculum once or twice to talk about worship… Maybe that’ll be the day.

    Incidentally, I mentioned that I decided against trying to forge a connection between the Exodus story of the Israelites being released from slavery and contemporary versions of that practice. I still think that’s the developmentally appropriate decision, but I might have given it a second thought after seeing the powerful images in this photo essay by Lisa Kristine: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/slavery-still-exists/262847.

  5. You’re in a good place. My most memorable teacher was Mrs. Helen Gaderlund in the Milwaukee Covenant Church; same age group. Seeds are planted there, watered by others, that will grow into some amazing fruit (and vegetables). Memories and relationships you create in that class will be remembered decades later, by at least a few, and treasured.

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