Category Archives: Educational Resource

Gleanings From a Book: “Sasha and the Dragon” by Laura E. Wolfe

Author’s note: I would have loved to have read (and re-read) this book with my children when they were younger! “Sasha and the Dragon” is a powerful story of a boy who conquers his fears with the help of St. Michael the Archangel. Although it is a picture book, “Sasha and the Dragon” is appropriate for Orthodox Christians of many ages because of all that the book addresses. This story opens the door for conversations about how strange a new country feels to the person entering it; what to do when you are alone and afraid at night; the reality of the saints’ readiness to come to our aid if we ask them to; and how the light of Christ illumines our world when we invite Him to do so!


Sasha has just moved to New York City from Russia. He misses the familiarity of his old village near the river: its sights, smells, and sounds. He felt safe there, and close to God. His new home, however,  is filled with shadows and seemingly uncaring people. It is grey and cold, and no one seems to know or love God or His saints. Other boys his age seem to mock Sasha at every turn instead of befriending him. Even his new house is not a very comforting place: his Baba who used to sing to him lies still in a scary room at the end of the hall. Sasha is afraid of everything in New York City.


Night time is the scariest for Sasha. Even though he signs himself with the cross before going to bed, he always feels the grey, unfamiliar shadows of the city lurking. One night, as Sasha lies in bed trying to go to sleep, he hears sounds under his bed, which he discovers to be a huge dragon. To his dismay, the dragon comes out from beneath his bed. Sasha is terrified and just wants to hide under the covers. Instead, he finds the courage to do all the right things: he kisses the cross he is wearing and then prays for help! An icon of the Archangel Michael hangs on the wall by Sasha’s bed, and Sasha is confident of the Archangel’s help. He asks St. Michael to kill the dragon with his sword.

As the dragon approaches, St. Michael’s icon begins to radiate heavenly light into the dark room. He races out of the icon on his great red steed and kills the dragon with his sword. As he does so, the room is filled with peace and hope. Sasha drifts happily to sleep. The next morning he wakes to find a slash from the dragon’s claw still remaining in the floor of his room, covered with a golden feather from St. Michael’s wings.

That very morning Sasha begins to notice and enjoy New York’s colors and good smells. A scarlet feather drifts into his hand as he walks. When he meets up with two of the mocking boys, instead of cowering or retreating, he surprises them by offering the feather to them. Sasha even braves the spooky hallway to take the golden feather to his Baba. Her delighted smile encourages Sasha, and he begins to sing to her, for he is no longer afraid!

This story is a delight, and Nicholas Malara’s drawings fit it perfectly. The art in this book is part “normal” picture book, part superhero story. The figures that are the most realistic are the accurately styled icons found on some of the pages. The tone of the illustrations changes from gloomy greys and muted colors at the beginning of the story to cheery bright colors at the end. This change is clearly intentional, and it greatly strengthens the story.


“Sasha and the Dragon” is an excellent addition to an Orthodox Sunday Church School’s library. It has a great story which also presents multiple possibilities for classroom discussion. It can be used with students of varied age levels, because it offers opportunities to discuss so many different relevant topics for children of different ages.

“Sasha and the Dragon”  is available from Ancient Faith Publishing here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/sasha-and-the-dragon/


Here are a few discussion ideas and suggestions of ways to learn together with your students after reading “Sasha and the Dragon”:

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If you have younger students, consider bringing a few basic props to class when you share this story. After you have read it to the class, invite them to act it out as you re-read. Possible props: a beanie and/or jacket for “Sasha;” a head covering for his mom; head covering and blanket for Baba; shawls/hats/baskets/etc for other New Yorkers; hats for the “mean boys”; icon of St. Michael that someone can hold “in Sasha’s room”; blanket and pillow for Sasha’s bed; dark gloves and hoodie for “dragon”; plastic sword for “St. Michael”; a red feather; a “gold” feather (spray paint or spread glue on a feather, then sprinkle it with golden glitter)
After acting it out, talk together about the story and what we can learn from it. Help each student to create their own gold feather and/or St. Michael icon to put in their room to remind them of his constant watching and willingness to help if we ask him to do so.

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How does a new world feel to those entering it? Have you ever gone someplace completely different? Did those around you speak your language? Is anyone near you experiencing this right now? How can you help them feel most welcomed instead of making fun of them (as the boys did to Sasha in the book)?

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With middle-years or older students, talk about why many Russians immigrated to the United States around the time that “Sasha and the Dragon” appears to take place. Look online to find some ideas and additional information. (For example, https://www.ancestry.com/contextux/historicalinsights/russian-immigration-1800s offers a short description along with actual photographs.) Discuss what it would be like to come into a completely foreign place and try to live there. Then think of any refugees that you already know, or look into how you could connect with refugees who have recently settled in your area and may feel like Sasha did in the story. Brainstorm ways to make them feel at home. Select one of those ways and do it!

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“Sasha’s Dragon” features a little boy who has recently moved to New York. Perhaps he was a refugee. Help your students learn about what a refugee is (if the term is new to them), and how a refugee’s life changes radically when they arrive in their new place. This (non-Orthodox, but helpful) website suggests a activities and lessons you may wish to share with your students in a discussion about refugees: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/teaching-resources.html

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Who is St. Michael? Learn more about him on the page dedicated to him in the back of “Sasha and the Dragon.” Look up other icons of him and compare them to the one in Sasha’s room. Read a real-life miracle that St. Michael and his spear caused to happen here: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/archangel-michael-at-chonae-icon-of-a-miracle/

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Discuss the following with your Sunday Church School students: What does our priest mean when he says at every Divine Liturgy, “The light of Christ illumines all!” and how does that affect us? What does it mean for our life? In what way does the light of Christ illumine Sasha’s life in the story “Sasha and the Dragon”? If your students are older, you can share this article (quoting Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory) as part of your discussion: http://orthodoxmeditations.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-light-of-christ-illumines-all.html
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With older children, discuss the story. Also talk about the meaning/symbolism behind the story and many of the illustrations. For example:

  1. In the beginning of the story, everything in Sasha’s world is dark, grey, hushed, shadowed, and Sasha’s baba’s room “smells like the dead crow he had found at the park”. Why do you suppose it is this way? Do the shadows reflect how Sasha feels in any way? How do the pictures in the beginning of the book make you feel?
  2. Sasha sees dragon shadows everywhere at the beginning of the story. They are not mentioned in the story, per se, but show up in the illustrations. How many dragon shadows can you find in the book? What do  you suppose is the reason that the illustrator included these shadows in these illustrations? What do you think they represent?
  3. How do the other children respond to Sasha at the beginning of the story? Why do you suppose they do that? Does Sasha like it? How do you know? Have you ever felt that way around other children?
  4. What does Sasha do to help calm his fears? What do you do when YOU feel afraid? Can you tell about a time when you did something just like Sasha does, and it helped you? Why do you think it helped?
  5. The dragon in Sasha’s room was very real to Sasha! Do dragons exist in the world? What do you think Sasha’s dragon was or represents? Do you have any “dragons” in your life?
  6. Why did Sasha turn to St. Michael for help with the dragon in his room? What do you know about St. Michael that makes him a good saint to ask for help with your own “dragons”?
  7. What other saints can help us with the “dragons” in our life? How can we get them to help us?
  8. The illustrations in the book make us look hard at the difference between God and His angels and saints and satan and his “helpers” (for example, in this book, the dragon). How do the illustrations help you to see the difference between the two? Does that difference appropriately illustrate the difference in real life?
  9. Sasha does something that shows his complete trust in St. Michael’s ability to save him. What does he do? When you are feeling afraid and attacked, to whom do you turn? Do you have the courage to trust God and His saints fully to help you in those times? Why or why not? Try to remember Sasha kneeling on his bed, pointing right at the dragon, and shouting, “Kill it with your sword!” every time you are feeling afraid!
  10. How does St. Michael enter Sasha’s bedroom? Why do you think the author included smells and sounds in her description of his entrance? How does it make you feel about St. Michael’s presence with Sasha?
  11. Describe St. Michael’s victory over the dragon. If you were there, what would you have thought? Did St. Michael accomplish what Sasha asked him to do, or did he accomplish even more? What makes you think that?
  12. Is Sasha’s life any different after St. Michael kills the dragon in his room? Just by looking at the picture, how can you tell?
  13. Sasha finds a feather on a gash in his floor. What is special about the feather? How would you feel if you found a feather like that in your room? What would you do with it if you found one?
  14. How does Sasha’s world change on the morning after St. Michael’s visit? Describe what Sasha sees as he goes out for a walk with his mother. Is anything different? What is missing?
  15. What does Sasha do with the two feathers he receives? Why do you suppose he does that? How do the others feel after they receive a feather from Sasha?
  16. Compare the first illustration in the book to the last page of Sasha’s story. Are these illustrations alike or different? How so? And how did it happen that they came to be that way? Then compare Sasha at the beginning of the book to himself at the end. Is he the same, or different? How can you tell?

 

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Gleanings From a Book: “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre

Author’s note: The use of the word “practical” in the title of this book is no accident. This is the most doable guide to prayer that I have ever read. Every chapter has easily-applicable suggestions that any Orthodox Christian can take to step in the direction of effective prayer. I am so grateful to have read the wisdom in this book. It is the perfect fusion of theology and scripture, incorporating examples and stories that make its contents so accessible that even I can understand them. The book is concise enough for me to re-read it anytime I feel that my prayer life needs another boost. I know that at some point, it will. So I will.

We all know that we should pray. Just before Christ taught His disciples to pray what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer,” He said, “When you pray…” and went on to instruct them to not to be like the hypocrites, to go into their room and pray in secret, and to not use vain repetitions. With each instruction, He began by saying “When you pray..,” indicating that prayer is expected. And rightly so, for his disciples (and we Christians today) love Him a tiny bit as much as He loves us; and in any loving relationship there must be communication. We communicate with our Lord through prayer.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy for us to fulfill this expectation to pray. Even though we know we should pray, there are times when prayer seems daunting or difficult, and we fall short. Author L. Joseph Letendre’s new book “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” is a helpful companion for such a time as this. It also serves as a preventative measure against future shortcomings in prayer! The book itself is not long, only 72 pages, but every page is useful to Orthodox Christians desiring to grow in prayer.

“When You Pray…” offers easily-understandable insights and encouragement for prayer. Each chapter covers a different way in which we should pray. Chapters include: “To Pray”; “Pray as You Can”; “Pray Attentively”; “Pray the Lord’s Prayer”; “Pray the Psalms”; “Pray the Gospel”; “Pray for Others”; ”Pray Frequently”; and “Pray Faithfully.”

This book is a must-read for Orthodox Christians who desire to strengthen their prayer life. We would encourage you to read it so that you can be a better example to your Sunday Church School students. The book is written simply enough that students as young as middle school would benefit from studying it together. We recommend that if you teach a class at the middle school level or higher, you consider using this book in your classroom. If you do, we recommend reading one chapter (or a small part of a chapter) at a time and discussing it together. (If your Sunday Church School happens immediately after Divine Liturgy, this book would be an excellent short meditation which you could read while your students are eating a small snack. It would also make an excellent textbook or book study.)

Regardless of how you read it, please read this book. It will help your prayers not to merely be “vain repetitions.” “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” will take you (and your students!) by the hand and help you learn how to pray effectively, from the heart.

Order your copy of “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/when-you-pray
Here are a few gleanings from “When You Pray,” as well as ideas of ways to share them with a group of older students:

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from Ch. 1: To Pray

“The litmus test of faith is not what we do in church, but what we do after church. The list we are given is exhaustive and exhausting. In part, we are
To acquire the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5)
To move from knowing about God to knowing God (1 Cor. 13:12)
To love our enemies (Matt. 5:44)
To forgive from the heart (Matt. 18:35)
To resist having our lives shaped by the world around us (Rom. 12:2)
To know joy in the midst of suffering (Phil. 4:4)
To follow the commandments of the Gospel (John 14:15).
In turn, we are promised we will
Be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2)
Become participants in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4)
Know the love of Christ and be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19)
Cultivate the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23)
Become holy as God is holy (Lev. 11:44, et al.; 1 Pet. 1:16).
What makes all of this—both the undertaking and promised result—possible is God’s grace. What makes grace accessible is prayer.” (pp. 7-8, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Before class, copy each of the passages mentioned in this part of chapter 1 on separate slips of paper. Before you read the chapter to the class, pass those slips out and ask each student to look up the passage they’ve been given. When you get to this part of the chapter, instead of reading each phrase, read the reference and ask the student holding the slip of paper with that reference to read the passage of scripture to the class. After you’ve read all of them,talk together about we are to do, what we are promised, and what it is that makes all of this accessible to our lives.

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from Ch. 2: Pray as You Can

“The decision to do what one can, however seemingly small or inadequate, recurs throughout the Bible: a young shepherd hurls stones at a giant warrior; out of a crowd of famished thousands, a boy graciously offers what few loaves he has; Peter tells a lame beggar, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you” (Acts 3:6). The giant falls, the thousands are fed, and the beggar leaps to his feet. In prayer, all we need do is what we can.” (p. 15, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Challenge your students to find each of the Bible stories mentioned in this passage. Talk about how each of these people did what they could: nothing supernatural, just the ordinary amount thing that they were able to do, and how God used that amazingly to work out His purposes. Invite your students to share times that they have done what they could and seen God at work through their “loaves and fishes.”

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from Ch. 3: Pray Attentively

“…from St. John of Kronstadt: ‘When praying, keep to the rule that it is better to say five words from the depth of your heart than ten thousand words with your tongue only.’ It sounds fair. If I don’t pay attention to my prayers, why should God? Paying attention during prayer proved more difficult than I anticipated…

“Three highly recommended practices can help:

  1. Preparing for prayer
  2. Saying the words of our prayer slowly
  3. Praying aloud.” (pp. 17-18, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Read and carefully discuss each of those practices with your students. The book fleshes out each recommended practice and offers concrete ways that you can work at each one. Encourage your students to select one for each practice, jot them on a post-it note, then place that note where they will see it and be reminded to keep working on that particular practice.

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from Ch. 4: Pray the Lord’s Prayer

“Without the right script, prayer can degenerate into telling God what He already knows, and then telling Him what we think He should do about it. [quoting Fr. Alexander Schmemann, quoting his teacher Archimandrite Cyprian Kern.] When Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked, ‘Lord, teach us to pray,’ He responded by giving them a script: ‘When you pray, say: “Our Father . . .”’ (Luke 11:1, 2).” (p. 24, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

You could couple a discussion of this chapter with an in-depth look at the Lord’s Prayer. (We wrote a whole series of blog posts on this prayer. The series begins here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/on-the-lords-prayer-an-introduction/)

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from Ch. 5: Pray the Psalms

“How many psalms should we pray? Monks and nuns are the Church’s experts in psalmic prayer. In monasteries and sketes that are able to follow the monastic rule fully, the entire Psalter—all 150 psalms—is read every week… To facilitate this, centuries ago, the Psalms were divided into twenty sections (called kathismas) and further divided into three subsections (called stases): thus, sixty sections of roughly equal length. So, one possibility is to pray one or more of these stases each day… If praying a stasis attentively is not possible, do less. Do one psalm. Do a few verses from one psalm. We should pray as many—or as few—psalms as we realistically can in the time we have. But we should never do none.” (p. 30, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Pull out the Psalter (or have your students look up the book of Psalms in Bibles). Allow your students time to read through the Psalms, and ask them to find one that jumps out at them – one that would be good for them to pray right now because of the struggle they are facing or because of how it encourages them. Take time for your students to quietly pray their specially-selected Psalm. You may even want to allow them to copy it, decorate the paper they’ve copied it onto and take that home with them to remind them to pray that Psalm. Challenge them to pray the Psalm every day for the week. The following Sunday, allow time for students to share if/how praying their Psalm helped them during the week.

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from Ch. 6: Pray the Gospel

“First, choose a short passage from the Gospels. It can be one event in the life of Christ, a section from the teachings of Jesus, even a single verse… In St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, we read how hearing just one verse from the Gospel in Church led Anthony into the desert to pursue the monastic life. Second, read the passage or verse out loud… Read it slowly. Then read it again. For writers across the centuries, the governing image here is “ruminating.” A ruminant (cows are the handiest example) is an animal that chews its cud. After it has eaten, it regurgitates its food and spends its time in a leisurely rechewing of its meal. When the saints advise ruminating on a passage of Scripture, they mean slowly ‘chewing over’ what we’ve read in our minds and our imagination.” (pp. 33-34, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Practice “praying the Gospel” with your students by applying the steps suggested in the book to this week’s Gospel reading. Teach them how to do this by leading them through it. Then when they are at home, they will know how to pray the Gospel because of their experience in Sunday Church School!

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from Ch. 7: Pray for Others

“When we have completed our list, we move on—in trust and confidence—to the rest of our prayer, the rest of our day, or simply to our rest. It is not our prayer or the intensity of feeling we bring to it that matters; what matters is God’s grace. Through our prayers we have joined in the work God is already doing; we have united God’s will for them to our own.” (p. 37)

“Praying for others can be risky. The risk is that we will become part of God’s answer to our prayer. We should be ready for that.” (p. 39, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Hand each one of your students a blank piece of paper and a pencil or pen. Give them a block of time to create their own list of people for which they can pray. Talk together about how to do this, how to lift that personal list of people up to God in prayer. Encourage your students to take their list home and work at doing this important work. Remind them that they may need just to pray for the people on their list, or that God may use them to become part of the answer to that prayer.

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from Ch. 8: Pray Frequently

“Few of us living ‘in the world’—meaning outside of monasteries—can pray without ceasing. Workday distractions and obligations, many of them part of our vocations, eat away at our time and attention. But even if we cannot pray ceaselessly, we can pray frequently. We can seize every opportunity the day affords us to pray briefly; we can pray on the run. Indeed, frequent prayer is essential if we are to grow in the Christian life and fulfill the commandments of Christ. Without frequent prayer, living the Christian life is all but impossible. As Jesus warned us, ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Therefore, besides praying at the set times of our rule, we should make every event, activity, and transition in our day an opportunity for a brief prayer.” (p. 42, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

Find ideas on how to pray frequently in this recent blog post: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2017/08/11/on-practical-reminders-to-pray/

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from Ch. 9: Pray Faithfully

“…the test of prayer is not how we feel or what happens during prayer; it is what we do and how we are after prayer. A friend of mine once observed that her brother had begun meditating and jogging. ‘He is calmer and thinner,’ she remarked, ‘but he’s no better.’ The fruits of prayer are revealed in the kitchen, the supermarket, and the office. This is why in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament we often read that God does not judge His people on the basis of their prayers, fasts, and ritual sacrifices in the temple, but on how they treat the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger (Zech. 7:10, for instance). The test of prayer is how well we fulfill the commandments of Christ. ” (pp. 60-61, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)

You could use litmus paper to introduce this section of the book. Before you read this chapter, show a piece of litmus paper to your class, and ask them if they know what it is and/or how it is used. Demonstrate its purpose by using pieces of litmus paper to test a variety of liquids: lemon juice, water, a soft drink, coffee, etc. Then ask the class what the “litmus test” for prayer is? Entertain answers, read this chapter aloud, then ask again (see answer above). Give each student a strip of litmus paper and a bookmark-sized piece of cardstock. Invite them to create a bookmark for their prayer book that includes the litmus paper and this reminder from p. 61 of the book: “The test of prayer is how well we fulfill the commandments of Christ.” (or “Am I passing the prayer test?” or something to that effect)

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Take some time with your students to discuss the seven principles that summarize the monastic fathers’ writings on prayer. These are listed in the appendix, pp. 63-62. As you read through them, encourage each student to select one on which to focus on improving in their life.

Back-Pocket Ideas for Creative Expression in Lessons

We have both created and collected ideas for you to slip “into your back pocket,” for when you are teaching and need some creative opportunities for your students. Summer break (if you have one) is a great time to be gathering such ideas and stashing them away for future reference. Then as you plan your lessons during the Sunday Church School year, you will already have creative ideas readily available for use with your students.

We recommend that as you take a look at the ideas and links that we share, if you find any that you like, bookmark the page on your computer, pin the idea(s) to your Pinterest board(s), or jot down your favorites on note cards. If you decide to take the notecard route, collect the cards in a recipe card box, or punch a hole in the corner of each card and clip them together on a binder ring that can be hung in your classroom where you can easily find them. If you come across a lesson-specific idea, you may want to jot your notes about it on a sticky note and place that in your teacher book at the lesson plan where you wish to use the idea. That way, you are guaranteed to remember it when you are ready plan that particular lesson. It is up to you how you keep track of the ideas which resonate with you, but do keep track of them somehow! That way you are most likely to be able to use them when an appropriate lesson arises!

Here are a few Orthodox “back pocket” ideas for creative expression in the Sunday Church School classroom. We are sharing them in the order in which we found them. We hope that some of them will be helpful for you to use with your students. What additional creative ideas do you have to share with the community?

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In December of 2014, we launched a series of blogs about including art in the Sunday Church School classroom. Read the initial blog here https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/on-including-art-in-the-sunday-church-school-classroom/ and then follow through the next few blog posts, to get some ideas of different art styles you may want to try with your students.

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Find Orthodox-specific craft ideas here: https://oca.org/the-hub/crafts/various-crafts

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Find some crafts which your students can use as they grow in their faith, here: http://orthodoxcamps.org/resources/ac

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Visit The Orthodox Children’s Press’ website for many craft ideas. Search “art” or “craft” to bring some of them up right away. Or just take a leisurely scroll through the site itself to see what all you find! http://www.theorthodoxchildrenspress.com/

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There are 20 Orthodox art/craft ideas here: https://fieldsofbasil.blogspot.com/2015/03/20-orthodox-crafts-for-lent-and-other.html

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Find Orthodox crafts sprinkled throughout this blog: http://www.illumination-learning.com/blog (Search “craft” to find them quickly.)

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This Orthodox blog offers craft ideas that could be helpful to your class: https://craftycontemplative.com/

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Back Pocket Ideas for Sunday Church School Games

If your Sunday Church School continues to meet year ‘round and you want some fun ideas for summer classes, this blog post is for you. If you are taking a break from teaching for the summer, but are thinking ahead to next year and how you want to switch things up a bit in your classroom, this blog post is for you. If you just love to collect fun ideas and keep them in your “back pocket” so that you can pull them out and use them with your Sunday Church School class at a moment’s notice, this blog post is for you! (Does that cover everyone? We hope so! We think this blog post can be helpful for you!)

We have collected some great Sunday Church School game ideas, and want to share them with you. If you find any that you like, jot them down on note cards. You can keep them in a recipe card box, or punch a hole in the corner of each card and clip them together on a binder ring that can be hung up somewhere. Either way, place the cards in your classroom for easy access. That way you can find them at a moment’s notice, and can play them with your students either as part of a lesson or if you end up with a few extra minutes at the end of a class one day.

Here are a few “back pocket” ideas for Sunday Church School games that we found (in the order in which we found them). Whether you want to do something different because it’s summer or you are planning ahead for next year, consider these fun ideas! What ideas do you have to share with the community?
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Find ideas for “quick, on-the-go Orthodox fun” here: http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2016/10/orthodox-games-on-go.html

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Find games for outdoor activities (like a Church picnic, VCS, or the occasional summer outdoor Church School class) here: https://oca.org/the-hub/games/various-games

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These indoor games are listed by age group, and vary between “quiet” and “running” games. Some could work in a classroom setting, while others would be great for VCS, JOY Club, or other large-group activity times: https://oca.org/the-hub/20-something/game-ideas

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These ideas for games range from games to introduce yourselves to each other to fun ways to learn from the Bible. While the source is not Orthodox, many of the ideas can be easily adapted and used in a Sunday Church School setting. https://disciplr.com/49-best-sunday-school-games/

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Find ideas of games that you can use to review what you’ve been learning in Sunday Church School here: http://paththroughthenarrowgate.com/sunday-school-games/

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Preschool teachers may want to adapt some of these (non-Orthodox) learning games for use with their students: http://classroom.synonym.com/sunday-school-games-preschoolers-8394712.html

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Find a variety of (not Orthodox, but easily used in an Orthodox setting) games for introductions, review, or just for fun, here: http://www.greatgroupgames.com/sunday-school-games.htm

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Download and use these fun icebreaker games from Orthodox Christian camps: http://orthodoxcamps.org/resources/games

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On Virtuous Year-End Awards

For many of us in North America, the Sunday Church School year is coming to an end. The end of a year offers the opportunity to note growth and accomplishment in all of us, but especially in our students. This a good time to review their growth and celebrate with them the positive ways we have seen them change.

Perhaps your Sunday Church School offers awards at the end of the year, such as certificates celebrating perfect attendance, most improved, best at ____, etc. Those achievements are important, and should be noted. But there are even more important ways for a child to improve than curriculum and attendance. As Orthodox Christians, we should constantly be evaluating and celebrating our spiritual growth and that of our students. The end of a school year is a great time to do so! Let us take a little time to think about each of our students and note their growth in the virtues. Growth in virtue is one way to measure their growth in The Faith. Perhaps this year would be a good time to begin giving our students virtues awards as well!

Not sure where to start? Check out our recent blog posts on the virtues (see https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/on-pursuing-the-virtues-an-introduction/, the beginning of the series), which offered suggestions of ways to teach our students about each of the virtues. Each of these blog posts can offer us helpful information about the virtue on which it focuses, which we can then apply as we think about each child. How have they grown in humility, liberality, chastity, mildness, temperance, happiness, and diligence? Which of these virtues do they best exemplify in their life? In which virtue have they grown the most?

Once we have answered some of the above questions, it would behoove us to find a way to acknowledge our observation of our children’s growth. This could be as simple as setting aside time with each child to privately encourage them and congratulate them on their growth in this area. Or perhaps we could take part of our last class together and have a “virtues awards” ceremony, wherein we note and celebrate each child’s growth in virtue.

If we choose to do an official “ceremony,” we can begin the discussion by showing the students a picture of them from the beginning of the school year (if we have one!) and compare it to how they look now. We can talk a bit about how they’ve grown physically this year. We can ask them to share other things they’ve learned over the course of the year (for example, how to ride a bike or play lacrosse or cook dinner). We could discuss academic growth as well, including the awards they’ve gotten at school. At this point, we can segue into a discussion of the children’s growth in the virtues. We can take time with each virtue as it applies to each child or we can talk about each child in turn and celebrate all the virtues in which we have noted growth for that child. Perhaps we will want to present the children with a tangible award celebrating their growth in a particular virtue. We may even want to present them with a gift such as an award certificate, a playful token representing the virtue in which they’ve grown, or a donation to a charity of the students’ choice in honor of their spiritual growth. How we choose to acknowledge the growth will vary, according to what the class needs. The important thing is that we notice the growth and encourage our students to continue to grow in virtue! When others see the good that is happening in us and acknowledge it, it makes us want to press on – and become even more godly! Let us do this for our Sunday Church School students, and press on together with them!

 

Here are ideas of tangible awards for each of the virtues, in case you want something to give to your students and need ideas. (You can choose to do just a verbal award, give a token gift, or maybe a donation to the charity of your class’ choice. Whichever works best for you!)

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Humility:

This printable certificate: Humility Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a slinky, some silly putty, or a container of slime. All three seek to return to the lowest point, just as we should continually try to be completely humble.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Liberality:

This printable certificate: Liberality Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a pack of stickers or a large container of bubble solution – something that can be freely and easily shared, to continue practicing the virtue of liberality!

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Chastity:

This printable certificate: Chastity Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a playful bar of glycerin soap (perhaps with a toy embedded in it) or a kid-friendly liquid soap pump. Either offers a way to continue to keep (your hands, at least!) pure.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Mildness:

This printable certificate: Mildness Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a stress ball or a liquid motion bubbler. Both are calming and can offer a way to remain mild in the face of an opportunity to be angry or anxious.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Temperance:

This printable certificate: Temperance Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a box of cookies, fruit snacks, or other beloved treats that can offer the child the opportunity to continue to practice temperance.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Happiness:

This printable certificate: Happiness Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a smiley face pin – actually, anything with a smile emoji on it! Wearing a smile will make others smile as well, and will remind you to continue to choose to be happy.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Diligence:

This printable certificate: Diligence Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a hoola hoop, jump rope, or puzzle. Whichever your child would enjoy the most, while working at it and being reminded to keep trying and not to quit!

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Here is a link to all seven certificates, if you wish to print all of them: Virtues Certificates – Google Docs

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Icon” by Georgia Briggs

Author’s note: This book will be of great encouragement and benefit to every Sunday Church School teacher’s journey of Faith. However, since the book is geared to older children, be aware of the events of the book and use caution when sharing it with your students. You know them, so you know if they would benefit from reading it, or if the events would be too disturbing and they would not find it uplifting. The book would be an excellent upper grades/teen book study!

I did not want this book to end. That is the first time in a long time that I’ve read a book and felt that way. “Icon” by Georgia Briggs may be aimed at young adults, but it is no ordinary young-adult-aimed fiction book, and is a great read for adults as well.

The story line in this book is believable, though fictional, and I found it hard to put the book down because of both the story line and the Orthodox insights throughout the book. “Icon” is the moving story of a young Orthodox Christian girl in a era similar to our own, except that in this dystopian tale (set in 0000 ET, “Era of Tolerance,” with flashbacks to the Pascha before ET began), it is suddenly no longer legal to be a Christian, most especially an Orthodox one. “Icon” is a story of loss, finding, miracles, death, light, and restoration, written so believably that the reader thinks “this could really happen!” It is a gripping story of Faith put to the test.

This book challenges its readers to think about their own Faith. What if all that we currently do and take for granted with regard to our Faith were suddenly illegal and we were being watched at every turn? What if our family members died/disappeared simply because of their Faith? What if we were left alone and had to move to new surroundings and change even our very name to one unassociated with our Faith? And what if all of this happened to us at the tender age of 12? My guess is that many of us would not react with the same endurance that Euphrosyne does. (But neither is this one of those books that glosses everything over. Euphrosyne definitely struggles with doubt and temptation all along the way, and the reader struggles along with her, knowing what she ought to do, but also understanding the reality of what will happen if she stands strong for her Faith!) The book is written so realistically that one almost feels the need to keep an eye out for “traps” in his/her own life after reading it.

After reading Euphrosyne’s struggles and then thinking through the questions that those struggles point to, the reader is left with the determination to take nothing about the Faith for granted. Readers will continue to realize the blessing that icons are in their life, whether the human-written ones or the icons that are still wearing the flesh that God Himself wrote. When a reader makes the sign of the cross, they will ponder the “streaks of light” that Euphrosyne could “see” traced over her Orthodox friends’ chests near the end of the book. The Divine Liturgy will not be the “same old” liturgy so easily taken for granted… I could go on and on (at the risk of divulging too much of the story) with ways that the reader will be challenged to ponder their faith. Suffice it to say that this book makes its readers really think about their Faith and then value it like never before.

If you choose to share this book with your students, be sure that you read it first (it won’t take you too long: as I mentioned before, it is hard to put down!), so that you have a grasp on what is coming. If you share it with the class, you can read it aloud with them, or have them read several chapters at a time that you can then discuss when you meet together. It would make a great summer “book club” read that you could meet up during coffee hour to discuss the next few chapters, even if you are not having Sunday Church School over the summer! Regardless of how you read it, be sure to talk together about this book. It is my opinion that your Faith (and your students’ Faith!) will be strengthened after reading and discussing this book together!

Purchase your own copy/copies of “Icon” here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/icon-a-novel/

Learn more about author Georgia Briggs here: https://georgiabriggsauthor.wordpress.com/

Here are some quotes from different parts of “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, along with suggestions of discussions your class could hold when you arrive at that part of the book. (With apologies for spoilers: they are difficult to avoid in this book!) We hope that these selections can help to give you an idea of the types of discussions that this book can encourage!
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“Mimi leans closer to me. ‘I’ll tell you a bigger secret,’ she whispers, ‘I am still Orthodox. My name is Mary. And guess what? It always will be.’

‘They made me change mine to Hillary,’ I say, ‘I used to be Euphrosyne.’

‘After St. Euphrosynos the Cook?’

‘Yeah. He was my patron saint.’

‘He still is your patron saint,’ Mimi whispers.

‘What if he isn’t, now that my name is different?’

‘They can’t change the name God gave you, Mimi says.‘Besides… you want to know something really ironic?’

‘What?’

‘Hillary is an Orthodox name too,’ she says with a grin. She shakes her head. ‘And Mimi is short for Miriam, which is just another form of Mary. Somebody didn’t do their research.’”~ “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 44

This exchange between Euphrosyne and her new friend, Mary the librarian, offers the chance to talk about names. What name does each member of your class go by? What is their Christian name? Spend some time learning more about and teaching each other about your patron saints!

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“I’m quiet for a few minutes, considering what he’s saying. It seems so easy, so simple, to believe that goodness is just following your heart and being nice to people.

It’s flat, thought. It’s like Winter Holiday instead of Christmas, warm and fuzzy but not real. It’s nothing like the rich smell of incense, or the warmth in your throat when you swallow communion, or the brightness of Pascha. I’ve pulled a bullet from an icon and watched it bleed. Maybe if I had grown up with my grandparents, I could agree with Dr. Snead, but you can’t go through what I’ve been through and not believe in God. The real question is if I want to follow God or not.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 99-100

Ask your students what they think of these thoughts Euphrosyne has in one of her “sessions” with Dr. Snead. Have them mentally compare their own spiritual life with the life of a non-religious person their age, to see if there are parallels to what Euphrosyne is saying about the emptiness of life without Faith. Invite them to cite incidents of times when they have had the opportunity to see God at work. Encourage them to think about following God as well, even if no one else around them is choosing to do so.

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“He turns the icon toward me, and I see St. Nicholas’ stern eyes and set mouth…

‘I thought Christians weren’t supposed to worship things like this,’ Dr. Wilcott says. ‘Graven images. Isn’t that kind of like idolatry?’

It’s like a picture of a friend, I think. Not an idol. But if I get drawn in, I might say too much, so I just say, ‘I don’t know.’

Dr. Snead chuckles. ‘Same old Hillary, shutting herself off.’”~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 162-163.

After reading this passage, talk with your students about icons and idolatry. How do the students define the difference between reverencing an icon and idolatry? Have they ever encountered someone who accused them of idolatry because of having icons in their home and church? Talk together about Euphrosyne’s personal description of what an icon means to her. Challenge the students to think of the best way that they can describe what an icon means to them, so that when they meet with opposition or accusations, they can clearly express their intent with having and/or reverencing the icon.

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“‘So, I assume you’re here for one of these?’ [Dr. Snead] waves his hand from me to the icon. ‘Or both?’

‘Both,’ says Father Innocent.

‘How about we make a deal?’ says Dr. Snead. ‘I’ll give you one. You choose.’

‘Then I must take Euphrosyne.’

‘The sick orphan instead of a holy icon? Look at her. She won’t make it out to your car.’

‘There are two holy icons here,’ says Father.

Dr. Snead blinks in confusion.

‘And I believe St. Nicholas can take care of himself,’ Father Innocent says…” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 180-181

Talk with your students about this passage. What does Father Innocent mean when he says that there are TWO icons in Dr. Snead’s office? There is St. Nicholas’ icon with the bullet hole and the bloodstain, and what/who else? Which icon is Fr. Innocent choosing to take with him? Do you think that is a good idea? Why or why not?

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“When I get close, I realize I can see more than just the stuff on the outside. I can see her soul too. And it makes me sad. Its silver glow has dark scars across it. There’s a jagged rip over her heart and another on her right hand, the hand she’s holding over her face as she cries. The one across her heart looks old, but the one on her hand is fresh. I hover beside her, trying to touch her.

‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.’ she whispers over and over again. She makes the sign of the cross, and her fingers leave a trail of light that lingers for a moment before disappearing.”  ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 195

Talk together about this passage after reading it. Why do you think her soul glows? Where did the scars come from? Why do her fingers leave a trail of light when she crosses herself? How does this make you think differently about your own soul and your own prayers?

Gleanings from a Book: “The Suitcase” by Jane G. Meyer

Orthodox Christian author Jane G. Meyer has written a new picture book called “The Suitcase: a Story about Giving.” The book was illustrated by Chiara Pasqualotto. It is the story of Thomas, a boy who may be autistic but does not let his challenges keep him from being an active participant – even a leader – in entering the Kingdom of God while bringing others with him. Any reader, regardless of age, will be challenged to find ways to make God’s Kingdom happen in the world around them after meeting Thomas through this book.

Here is a brief summary and review of the book:

Thomas is like clockwork. He is so precise with his preferred activities that you can almost predict what he will do each day. So, when he randomly shows up at the family supper table one night with a suitcase, declaring that he intends to leave for the Kingdom of Heaven, it catches everyone’s attention, for this is far from his routine! With his family’s love and support, Thomas shares his plan, showing his family (and the reader) each item that he has packed and explaining why he has packed it. As he does so, Thomas unknowingly reveals how carefully he has been paying attention to teachings about the Faith, and unveils his commitment to following Christ, even though it means stepping away from his beloved routines.

The colorful watercolor illustrations in this picture book are gently realistic. They invite the reader to feel comfortable in Thomas’ home and with his family. There is just enough detail to illustrate the story in an orderly manner, just as Thomas likes his world to be organized. (There is also just enough missing in each illustration to leave room for the reader’s imagination, inciting curiosity.)

“The Suitcase” is full of scriptural references. The reader can’t help but try to make connections: What was Thomas thinking about when he packed this item? Where did he hear about that one? Where can I learn more about it?!? Parents and teachers will find in “The Suitcase” more than just a lovely story. They will find in it an opportunity to delve into the scriptures with their children, to ensure that they know the source of each of the contents in Thomas’ wonderful suitcase.

Readers of all ages will be challenged to think beyond their own routines, consider what they should be “packing” in their own suitcase, and then reach out into the Kingdom of Heaven by finding ways to love and serve all those around them. The resource page at the end offers an excellent place to begin!

“The Suitcase” will be a welcome addition to any Orthodox Christian library, and can easily be incorporated into a Sunday Church School class lesson or even a series of lessons. It could be the starting place for a series of lessons about the Kingdom of God and how we can make it happen right where we are! The book also provides an opportunity for Sunday Church School students to see through the eyes of a person living with autism, so it could be included in a series of lessons about different challenges that people face and how we need to embrace our own challenges while loving others with different challenges as we journey together towards God’s Kingdom.

Note: the author of this review was given a reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. Visit http://www.paracletepress.com/Products/7763/the-suitcase.aspx to order your own copy of the book.

Here are some other ways that you can help your Sunday Church School students to learn through the book “The Suitcase:”

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Read author Jane G. Meyer’s take on “The Suitcase,” including why she wrote the book, here: http://www.janegmeyer.com/books/the-suitcase/

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Take time to investigate the scripture passages that are alluded to in “The Suitcase.” You could incorporate them all into the same lesson, or have a series of lessons introduced after reading the book. Scriptural allusions include:

Feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:35)

Clothing the naked (Matthew 25:36)

Giving to those in need (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Being a good servant (Matthew 25:21)

Praying for the world (James 5:16)

Having Faith like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32; 17:20)

Talking less and listening more (James 1:19)

Entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2)

Keeping ourselves pure (James 1:27)

Building things if God tells us to do so (Genesis 6:14-22)

The pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46)

The hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44)

Submitting to others (for example, allowing children to lead us) (Ephesians 5:17-21)

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Spend some time focusing on the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed in Christ’s parables. Read the parables with your students. Talk about them together. Here are two printable activity pages you could include in your study if your students enjoy such challenges:

Invite your students to seek and find words related to Christ’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in this printable word search: http://www.biblewise.com/kids/fun/hidden-word-kingdom-heaven

They can decipher this related verse, as well: http://www.biblewise.com/kids/fun/break-code-kingdom.php

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Find ideas of ways to teach younger students about Christ’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as craft suggestions, here: http://adventuresinmommydom.org/parables-of-heaven-activities/

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“[The Suitcase] is the book I wanted…  when we were doing our HUGS-based lessons. The goal was to teach the children Christ’s words, ‘Do it to the least of these my brethren and you do it to Me’ (Matthew 25:40).” Read more of this mother/teacher’s review of “The Suitcase” in her blog post here: http://orthodoxmothersdigest.blogspot.com/2017/03/book-review-suitcase-by-jane-g-meyer.html

And find more about the HUGS program (including links to lesson ideas for each age level), which is a natural step to take with your students after reading “The Suitcase” here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/hugs-hands-used-for-gods-service/

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This TED talk by Roger Antonsen (https://www.ted.com/talks/roger_antonsen_math_is_the_hidden_secret_to_understanding_the_world) explores the relationships in math and science, and what they teach us about perspective. When we shift our perspective, we learn more about the world around us. What we learn from math and science can be applied to our life as we interact with others. Consider this: “When I view the world from your perspective, I have empathy with you. If I really truly understand what the world looks like from your perspective, I am empathetic. That requires imagination and that is how we obtain understanding… Understanding something really deeply has to do with the ability to change your perspective. So my advice to you is, ‘try to change your perspective!’”

The talk could be an excellent way to extend the concept of stepping outside of your comfort zone (as demonstrated by Thomas in “The Suitcase”) in a discussion with teens. (Yes, it is possible to share a picture book with teens! Especially if they have a reason for listening to it!) Consider showing them the TED talk, then inviting them to think of how it relates to “The Suitcase” and share the book with them. THEN launch into a discussion of how the two relate, and how to apply the concept of changing our perspective, empathizing with others, and finding ways to serve them!