Hannah J. has guested with us before.
In the interest of strategy sharing, let me start by saying that having our class act out scriptures is the only thing my husband and I can do to harness the crazy energy of our CTR 4 class of eight kids. They love it. We started with the Nativity at Christmas time and have done stories ranging from Daniel and the lions’ den to the council in heaven. Every time we do it, the kids insist that we spend the entire lesson replaying the scene to give everyone a chance to act out different characters. The enjoyment and learning value of donning costumes and acting out scriptures aside, we always face a casting imbalance since our class has six girls and two boys. Roles such as King Herod, the wise men, and the angel Gabriel do not appeal to these young girls. Honestly, I do not blame them. When I was learning to read as a kid I was not interested in books with male protagonists. I loved Ramona Quimby, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew because, in the act of reading, I could imagine myself as these girls and women. This reality continually challenges my husband and I as we try to find meaningful ways for the girls to act and experience scriptural stories and learn the truths therein. We have to re-negotiate the roles for the talent available; our actresses instead act as Queen Herod, the wise women, and the angel Gabrielle.
A few months ago, our lesson was about the Council in Heaven. Using a few scarves and white shirts the children were costumed and cast in their roles. Jesus, Lucifer, and Heavenly Father were the people specifically in the “script” but we reasoned that Heavenly Mother must have also been there, as well as countless spirits/angels. I thought that perhaps the roles of Jesus, Lucifer, and Heavenly Father were more rigidly gendered and less flexible than the previous Nativity scene we had acted. The kids disagreed. One boy assented to be Heavenly Father and the other to be Lucifer, we got a quick female volunteer for Jesus and another for Heavenly Mother; the rest of the girls were happily cast as angels.
The scene played out in the following way: the “Heavenly Father” actor was too shy to outline the plan of salvation (that we were whispering to him) to the heavenly host/spirit children/classmates/fellow actors. However, the girl playing Heavenly Mother had no such difficulty; she boisterously told the class about the plan. After Heavenly Father saw that it was cool to do the play-acting, both him and Heavenly Mother related in unison to the host of heaven that they needed a Savior to carry out integral parts of the plan. Lucifer (coincidentally the most rambunctious kid in the class) volunteered himself and told the rest of the heavenly host that he would force them to do right so that everyone could make it back to heaven and the glory would be his. Jesus (one of the class’s best dressed and most quiet girls) proposed the plan that everyone should choose the right for themselves and that the glory should be Heavenly Father and Mother’s. We then asked the two angels to decide what plan they preferred. After some consideration one went and stood with Jesus. Without any prompt from us, the child Lucifer started appealing to his real life friend to join his camp. After much internal debate, she still decided to choose Jesus. All in all, I could not have imagined a better way for the kids to learn and experience the story.
We continued to replay the scene and switch up the roles until the class was finished. As I watched the scene unfold I found myself wishing that this were always the way we thought of the Council in Heaven. On Sundays and in General Conference I feel lucky when people even mention the concept of “Heavenly Parents”, let alone naming the existence of our Heavenly Mother. Just as the kids were willing to believe that a spare button up white shirt was an angel costume and that 3D movie glasses made a good wise wo/man look, they were also willing to play out the roles of our heavenly parents with ease and reverence.
As a university student, I studied and bemoaned the absence of women in scripture. In my classes we studied interpretations of women in scripture and how they often reflected the contemporary roles that women held in their religious community. Now, instead of writing papers that critique interpretations of scriptural women, I find myself as a primary teacher whose job it is to help four-year-old children gather meaning from these ancient and complex writings. In doing so, I want to provide relatable female scriptural role models for my female majority class. I want the girls in the class to know that, just like the boys, there will be meaningful places for them in their future religious community. In the same way that the scriptures are filled with visible male protagonists; the church is also filled with visible places and roles for men. Right now in primary both the children and us teachers use our imaginations to make meaningful roles for themselves in these scriptural stories. But this imaginative collaboration between leaders and the rest of us will be just as necessary as these children grow up and create meaning for themselves in their wards and spiritual communities. For now the task has been easy: the angel Gabriel becomes angel Gabrielle and no one knows any differently.
Last Sunday, we were acting out how Jesus called his apostles Peter, James, and John by making them “fishers of men.” After discussing the roles with the children, one girl decided that she did not want to be anyone (including the coveted role of fish). I proposed that she act as Mary Magdalene but this time my make shift inclusion tactics didn’t work; this girl was not content to be an apocryphal female character thrown into the story. It crushed me that this girl did not participate in the play-acting session because there were no viable female roles. It made me worry about the women and girls who choose to opt out because they do not see places for themselves in our community. Just like my creative interpretations of the character’s gender in the scriptures, some cosmetic changes can be made to accommodate women and allow them space to be actors and agents in this community. However, I am convinced that that is not enough. While I don’t claim to have any of the answers, I do know that our religious leaders and community at large, both locally and generally, needs to creatively engage with both women and girls to make meaningful roles for them.