Beginnings: Myths and stories from world religions
A curriculum for upper elementary grades by Dan Harper, v. 1.2
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper.

You can leave feedback on version 1.2 in the comments of this post.

N.B.: The Web edition of this curriculum is not yet complete; it is missing the story for Session Two. The print version used at the UU Church of Palo Alto contains the complete curriculum.


Introductory chapters
Questions and wonderings (for children and teachers)
How to lead this course (for teachers and parents)
Goals and objectives (for teachers and congregational leaders)

Session One: A story from the San people (The Moon and the Hare)
Session Two: A Shinto story from Japan (From the Floating Bridge of Heaven)
Session Three: A story from the Yoruba tradition (The Golden Chain)
Session Four: A story from the Hebrews of Palestine (The First Seven Days)
Session Five: Another story from the Hebrews of Palestine (The Garden of Eden)

Session Six: A story from China (Pangu)
Session Seven: Two more stories from China (Nuwa)
Session Eight: The hymn of Purusha


Statue of Obatala

Statue of Obatala, an orisha common to many of the Yoruba traditions. This statue was photographed in Costa do Sauipe, Bahia, Brazil. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Questions and wonderings (for children and teachers)

How did things begin?

Many children ask this question. And this is a question that human beings have asked over and over again, for as long as there have been human beings.

Scientists can give us many answers to how things begin. Scientists tell us that life began on earth through chance combinations of chemicals. Then over a long period of time, those first forms of life evolved into more and more complex forms of life, until today there are millions and millions of different kind of plants and animals and other kinds of living things on earth. And today, living things are still evolving and changing.

Scientists also tell us that the universe may have begun in the Big Bang, out of which were formed galaxies and stars, and eventually planets. Scientists have carefully observed the way stars move through the universe, and using mathematics and scientific models, they figure out how the universe is changing and evolving right now. Based on that, they reason out how the universe began. So scientists can tell us how many things began, based on scientific observations, and based on mathematical models and careful analysis.

Of course, there are some people who refuse to accept what scientists have so carefully observed, and so carefully reasoned out. But that’s not what we Unitarian Universalists do — we accept what scientists have reasoned out about the world around us, and we recognize that science is always discovering new things about the world, and over time our understanding of how things began will grow more accurate. We accept what scientists teach us, and we find great beauty and wonder in scientific discoveries.

Yet even so, we still ask questions. If the universe began in the Big Bang, why did it begin? Life evolved here on earth, but why did human beings evolve? Why not some other kind of intelligent creature? What does it mean to be a human being?

And we also wonder about what it all means. What is the purpose of human beings? Do we have any purpose in life? What is the purpose of the universe? Does the universe have any purpose? The universe is still changing, but why does it change? Life continues to evolve, but why? And how do we feel about all the changes that are going on around us? What is the place of human beings in the world? Are we important, or are we insignificant? What should we do with our lives? Why are we born, and why do we die?

These questions and wonderings may lead us into the realm of art and poetry and religion. For thousands of years, artists and poets have helped us understand our feelings about the world. Artists and poets have given us stories, myths, and legends about how the world began, and about the place of human beings in the world. The best myths and legends have become part of the great religions of the world.

Myths and legends change and evolve over time. Religions change and evolve over time as well. New people come along, and these new people wonder about the world in slightly different ways than did their parents. But still we return again and again to some big questions:

—Who are we human beings, and why are we important?
—Where did everything come from, and why?
—Why are we born, and why do we die?

We know that there are no final answers to these questions. We keep asking these questions, and we keep on wondering. And as we wonder, sometimes we retell great myths and legends to see how other people in other times answered these questions.



How to lead this course (for teachers and parents)

In this course, you will find that the weekly sessions are grouped into two curriculum units. The first unit, titled “Five stories about beginnings from four peoples,” has five sessions grouped around a common theme. The second unit, titled “Myths about cosmic eggs,” has three sessions grouped around a common theme.

Each session has a complete lesson plan and a story. The lesson plans are designed to last about 50 minutes. This is because in our congregation, we have the children attend the first 10-15 minutes of the service before they go off to Sunday school classes. Attendance at services helps us move children towards our fourth big educational goal, preparing them to become Unitarian Universalist adults should they choose to do so when they are older. While attendance at services is not specifically a part of this curriculum, it is crucial in helping us meet our educational goals.

Most of the lesson plans suggest that you have the children act out the story, and then lead a conversation about the story. Acting out the story reaches children with all kinds of learning styles, including those children who have a hard time sitting still. Once the group learns how to go about acting out stories, I have found that acting helps them remember and retain the story, and to talk with their parents about the story.

Many lesson plans also provide a short introduction to the people or the culture from which the story comes. You should read this to the children before reading the story, to give them some context for the story.

You do not have to use the lesson plan that is provided, if you have another idea of an activity that you’d like to use. However, for the first three weeks, it would be wise to stick to the lesson plans, since this is the time when the group learns how to act out stories together. If you do make up your own lesson plan, do look through the lesson plans given here: sometimes one week’s lesson plan provides a lead-in to the next week’s lesson plan, and if you’re going to change that, you need to tell next week’s teacher that you’re making changes.

This curriculum was designed with mixed-age groups of children in mind—specifically, this curriculum was designed for and field tested with children in grades 2-5. When teaching mixed-age groups of children, it is wise to aim your teaching at the oldest children; if they get bored, you will lose them. By contrast, the younger children will mostly want to be like the older children, and will tolerate material that goes over their heads. You can also provide leadership opportunities to the older children. In particular, if they like to read out loud, you could ask them to read the story now and then.

About myths

An essential point of this curriculum is to introduce children to myths and religions beyond their own religious tradition. Many Unitarian Universalists find it tempting to dismiss myths as superstitions, or as falsehoods. If you think of myths as competing with science as ways to explain the world, then you might be justified in calling them falsehoods. But myths are not the same as science. The Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones said: “The poet may know of flowers which ‘can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,’ but science discovers no such flowers in its field. Its flowers are amazingly complex, but they call for no handkerchief.” [Spiritual Reformers, p. xvii.] Myths are not science, because they sometimes call for a handkerchief.

In this curriculum, we think of myths and religion as forms of cultural production, forms which are related to the arts, especially poetry. As such, myths and religions help human beings to answer questions of meaning, and to answer the question of one’s own personal importance within the universe.

In this curriculum, we also think of myths and religions as ways to understand other peoples. Some of the peoples we hope to understand no longer exist: the |Xam language group, for example, has no surviving members. We hope to understand these peoples so we can understand something of where the human race has come from. Some of the peoples we hope to understand still exist and thrive today: the Japanese, the Jews and Christians, etc. We hope to understand these peoples so that we can be good world citizens, and also so we can better understand our own myths and religion.

About truth

I hope this course raises questions about truth for you, the teacher. What do we mean when we say something is true? Usually, when we want to say whether something is true or not, we rely on a logical, scientific mode of thinking. Psychologist Jerome Bruner calls this the “paradigmatic” mode of thinking. But story-telling — what Bruner calls the “narrative” mode of thinking — is an equally valid mode of thinking that helps us know what we and others think and fell and know.

Educator Maxine Greens draws on Bruner’s work in psychology to encourage us teachers to use imagination and the arts with children. She reminds us that “storytelling and the understanding of stories involve an alternative mode of worldmaking or interpretation.” We do not have to explain every story through logic and mathematics. In fact, stories provide us with something that logic and mathematics cannot provide:— an insight into how others think and feel and know their world. Maxine Greene also suggests that we teachers should trust children more than we sometimes do.

When I teach the stories in this course to children, I have found that they think carefully and deeply about the stories, and that they are capable of understanding many kinds of truth. When I ask children, “Are these stories true?” — they are able to make fine distinctions. They can understand that one story could be historically true, while another story is obviously more like a fairy tale. Yet children can also understand how a fairy-tale-like story can tell us something profoundly true about the world.

As you teach this course, it might be a good idea to reflect on some of the myths we Unitarian Universalists tell ourselves. For example, we tell ourselves that human beings are predominantly rational — and we tell ourselves this myth against scientific evidence presented in the fields of psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, evidence which shows clearly that humans are not predominantly rational beings. Obviously, we know about the scientific evidence that shows we are not predominantly rational. Yet telling ourselves this myth of rationality helps us make sense out of the world, and it helps us to find our personal places in the world. In other words, we have our own Unitarian Universalist myths which are not based in scientific evidence.

This is really what myths do. Myths help us find our personal places in the world. A myth can help you to know who you are, as an individual. A myth can help you to know what you ought to do with your life. And by studying the myths of other peoples, perhaps we can better understand how we Unitarian Universalists also use myths to make sense out of the world.

[For more on truth and stories, see: Kieran Egan, Teaching as Storytelling (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); “Imagination and Learning: A Reply to Keiran Egan” by Maxine Greene, Teachers College Record (New York: Columbia University), vol. 87, no. 2, Winter 1985, pp. 167 ff.; Jerome Bruner, “Narrative and Paradigmatic Modes of Thought,” in Learning and Teaching: The Ways of Knowing, 84th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. Elliot Eisner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 97-115.]

About religious literacy

Another central theme for this course is to increase religious literacy. As you teach this course, you may find that you wish to increase your own religious literacy. Here are suggestions for two books you may wish to look at.

An excellent, very enjoyable book that you might want to read on this general topic is God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero (New York: Harper Collins, 2010). Prothero points out the vast differences between the eight largest world religions, and suggests that understanding the differences between religions is the best way to help ourselves live alongside other religions.

An excellent reference book on world religions is Introduction to World Religions, edited by Christopher Partridge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). Designed as a textbook for introductory college courses, this book is filled with information and illustrations on many different religions. Of special interest are the short interviews with actual practitioners of various religious traditions. This is an expensive book, so look for it in your library.

It’s also worth looking at Ninian Smart’s Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (University of California, 1996). You don’t need to read the whole book, but it is worth knowing the seven dimensions of religion as defined by Smart: the material dimension (e.g., objects and buildings); the social dimension; the ethical and legal dimension (e.g., rules for behavior); the experiential and emotional dimension; the ritual dimension; and the mythic and narrative dimension. While this curriculum focuses on the mythic and narrative dimension, there are hints of some of the other dimensions, too.

About the illustrations

For all the stories, I have provided between one and three illustrations. The illustrations are all in black and white, so that if you use them as examples for the children to do their own drawings, they will have to use their imaginations to determine the color of things. If you prefer color illustrations, you can find lots of them using the usual search engines — better yet, get the children in your class to search for color images on their own.

Notice that some of the illustrations are photographs of religious objects or buildings. I have included these so we can begin to introduce children to what Ninian Smart calls the material dimension of religion.

The big questions

Each of the stories in this course asks the question: How did something begin? — how did death begin? how did life begin? how did the universe begin? how did the seasons begin? As you lead the children through these stories, feel free to talk about scientific understandings of how the universe began, etc. But these stories also ask why? and why me? and how come this feels the way it does? and what ought I do?

All of us struggle with these latter questions, both children and adults. So at times you might also want to share a little bit about your own wonderings, and your own struggles to make sense of the world.

I hope you enjoy teaching the course as much as I have enjoyed assembling it.

— Dan Harper
San Mateo, California
April, 2014


Goals and objectives (for teachers and congregational leaders)

There are four big educational goals for all the curriculum published on the Yet Another UU Curriculum site:

(1) We want children to have fun and feel they are part of a community.
We want this both because our religious tradition values community and a sense of belonging to a group of caring people; and also because we want children to want to come to Sunday school, for if they don’t come (or don’t want to be here when they do come), they won’t learn anything.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:
a. We will take attendance each week so the children will hear each other’s names (including the names of any visitors or newcomers).
b. We will allow time for check-in during an opening circle, so each child may say something good and something bad that has happened in the past week.
c. We will sometimes allow time for free play; and/or we will allow time for activities that allow the children to socialize (such as drawing pictures).

How we will assess the group’s performance:
Watch attendance as a percentage of enrollment. 50% attendance is average; 60% attendance is good to excellent.

(2) We want children to gain the basic religious literacy expected in our society.
This is both so children can better participate in democracy in a multicultural society, and so they understand basic cultural references.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:
a. We will expose the children to some important stories from some important religious/cultural traditions, based on a general list of topics for religious literacy.
b. We will expose children to some stories from lesser traditions, that may be at the margins of American culture and world culture, but which still have their own importance as human cultural productions.
c. We will help the children remember these stories.
d. We will have conversations with the children about these stories, to help them begin to understand the differences and similarities between different cultures and religions.

How we will assess the group’s performance:
a. We will ask the group to repeat each story back to us during the class session (e.g., before they act out the story, during a closing circle, etc.).
b. We will have a conversation with the children about each story, so they can make sense out of the story, and to help them better remember what the story was about.
c. At the end of the curriculum we will plan to have the children make some sort of public presentation of what they have learned to the congregation. Suggestion: create a bulletin board display of all the artwork they have created during these eight weeks, and invite the parents to come see it at the end of class on the date of the closing celebration (session 8).

(3) We want children to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, things such as public speaking, singing, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:
a. We will help children learn interpersonal skills by helping them cooperate together to act out stories, and/or to do group illustrations of stories, and/or through other modes of the whole group working together.

(4) We aim to prepare children to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decisions.
To this end, we help children to become sensitive, moral, and joyful people, people who have intellectual integrity and spiritual insight.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:
a. We will remind the children that this is a Unitarian Universalist congregation, by saying the typical opening words each week (see sessions plans).
b. We will find opportunities in class sessions to support children in their moral growth and emotional sensitivity.
c. We will seek ways to bring joy into the classroom.
d. We will foster intellectual integrity and spiritual insight through open and serious conversations.