The word curriculum can bring to mind thoughts of inflexible, structured, boring schemes of work. It is rarely the type of word you hear being banded around on a regular basis within youth work circles. It doesn’t quite prick the ears as quickly as ‘How to incorporate the latest craze of bottle-flipping into your teaching on the gospel of Matthew’ ! However, when understood and engaged with properly, a curriculum can enhance and bring growth to your youth work. Put simply, a curriculum provides a frame on which to hang your youthwork; it gives structure to your vision and it enables you to lead your young people in a way that will give them great opportunities to develop in their faith.
However, for many, (especially volunteer youth workers) the idea of putting together a curriculum of sessions that last for more than a couple of weeks can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s easier to go week-by-week, plucking ideas from various youth sites topped off with some easy craft ideas from Pinterest! This is all well and good in the short term, but if we want to help our young people grow in their faith and themselves, it falls short.
We must be aware that our young people are in a poignant stage of their cognitive development, exploring their ability for complex thinking about themselves, others and the world around them. If we work alongside this development we can enable them to use these complex-thinking skills to really stretch and enhance their personal faith. Doing this requires an element of structure, however. It is like building a wall of building blocks; you can only reach the top row of blocks once you have laid the base layers. One-off sessions can certainly challenge and impact young people, but a longer lasting, more stable impact is far more likely when it comes as part of a process of learning that has lead them to that point. This is why we see curriculum in education; spelling a world is much harder when you don’t know the alphabet!
Curriculum does not need to come with the scary connotations we might think it has. If we see it more as a map than an educational concept it can help us write the directions for the journey our young people need to go on in order to build a strong faith which can be challenged and explored with their ever developing cognitive skills.
Developing a structure and map for our sessions to follow allows us to meet the needs of our young people at an appropriate level. This is vital if we are to help them start to get their heads around the complexities and big questions they will inevitably encounter in their faith. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he explains how he gave them the teaching that was relevant to their need at the time; they needed milk because they were not ready for solid food, there were lessons they still needed to learn before they could progress further in their understanding (1 Corinthians 3:2). Having a structure to our youth work allows us to take young people who need milk and journey with them as they are weaned onto solid food when they are ready.
We see in the way Jesus journeys with the disciples, teaching them and preparing them so that they develop their understanding of who he is and how he works before he sends them out on their own. The journey prepares them for their own ministries. We see Jesus telling parables to the crowds, and then taking his disciples further in their understanding of the parable by explaining it in more detail to them. Jesus knew the journey his disciples were on, and although we often see them simply not getting what he is talking about he continued to journey with them, meeting them at their level to help them build on their understanding. It is through this close, person – centered, journey with our young people that we learn when they just need the story, and when they need further teaching to develop their understanding.
Developing a curriculum does not need to be the humungous task it may seem. It is simply the framework for your sessions; it is your road map, not an ordinance survey of the entire journey. These few suggestions may help you create your curriculum plan.
Know your young people!
Before you can lead your young people on a journey, you must first and foremost know where they are starting. Spend time getting their views on what they feel they know well and what they would like to learn. You could get them to complete a survey ranking topics based on how well they feel they know them. Involving your young people in this part of the process also empowers them to take ownership of their development; it gives them an element of control over their own journey. If they feel that what they will be looking at is something they have chosen they will retain their interest in the topic far longer than if it has been decided for them. This process will also help you know at what level to pitch the sessions you develop, as you will gauge the level of the understanding they already have.
Use your team!
Even if you only have a small number, or you are all volunteers, you have within the church around you a wealth of knowledge and experience. Set aside a time when you can sit with others and bounce ideas around about what to cover and roughly how you will do so. During this time you may find that one person has a particular interest in an area you wish to cover and they are able to give their input into the plan.
Have a big picture of what you want to cover in one, two, three years. This does not need to be planned in detail. It is just a picture to slot your planning into. Although it may seem like a lot to think about, once it is in place it will make the rest of your planning much easier.
Get a term ahead
Doing your specific session planning a term ahead enables you to remember the vision of where you are headed whilst you are in the present. It also gives you a good amount of sessions planned in advance so that you don’t need to panic about what to do each week. Planning just one term at a time also gives you space to be flexible to the journey the young people are going on. If you feel they are particularly enjoying one topic, you can extend it. Likewise, if they are struggling you can try new ways to continue their development. A curriculum of work is not about setting rigid time frames in which young people must cover a certain amount – the focus should always be on the journey. Having a broad picture to work with gives you a guide to follow, but also allows for freedom to play within those guidelines.
REFLECTION & LEARNING
Young people and youth culture are continually changing and developing. When you work in this field, you must be prepared to keep reflecting and reforming your work to keep up. This is not about keeping up with the latest trends so that your young people are impressed. This is about reflecting on how you are engaging with your young people and how well that is working. Are you planning sessions that make sense to the young people in the world they are growing up in? Is it relevant to what they are facing? Or are you still churning out your favourite Veggie Tales video because you love it so much and you can just about class it as ‘retro’ now?!
Set a time at the end of each series of sessions and reflect on how you feel it went. What could have been better? How could you have engaged the young people in a more meaningful way? Did it flow and make sense? Have they developed their knowledge or experience?
It is well worth keeping a short note of each session you run, with any key observations – this will help tremendously when you come to review the whole series.
Don’t be scared to try new things. If you think it might work, give it a go. The key thing is to reflect on it and decided whether it was a success or a failure so that you can learn from it.
Involve your young people in this reflection. Their involvement in this process facilitates their personal ability to self-reflect. Inviting their feedback also ensures they feel valued and that their voices are heard. This type of leadership role-models the skills of self-development that are essential for young people to learn as they grow and learn more about themselves and what matters to them.