From Long Ago

From Long Ago: Lesson plans for the book From Long Ago and Many Lands
A curriculum for middle elementary grades by Dan Harper, v. 1.2
Originally developed with Paul Albertus, and Edie Keating, Lucy Filppu, and Carol Steinfeld, 2009-20012.
Copyright (c) 2014-2019 Dan Harper


Goals and Objectives
About the lesson plans

Session 1: “The Picture on the Kitchen Wall” — session plan and link to story
Session 2: “The Land of Great” — session plan and story, link to alternate story
Session 3: “The Birth of Confucius” — session plan and story, link to alternate story
Session 4: “The Birth of Buddha” — session plan and story
Session 5: “Gautama Finds Out for Himself” — session plan, link to story
Session 6: “The Mustard Seed Medicine” — session plan and story, link to alternate story
Session 7: “The Dog and the Heartless King” — session plan and story, link to alternate story
Session 8: “The Two Friends” — session plan and story

The sequel to this curriculum is From Many Lands.

This curriculum was initially inspired by the book From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online here.

Goals and objectives

(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 Sun-day 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:

a. 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.

(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 help-ing 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.


Included here are lesson plans for eight stories from the book From Long Ago and Many Lands. (In some cases, I have rewritten the stories from original sources.) This book of stories for liberal religious children was written in 1948 by the brilliant religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs. Ms. Fahs wrote this in the introduction to the book:

“This collection of stories has been made as a kind of pre-history for children of seven, eight, and nine, whose feelings for the long-long, ago are still vague, but stretching. Before children learn historical facts and dates, we think it desirable that they discover through such simple tales as these that the people of long ago were real and that in the deepest and most important ways they were like the people of today….”

Sophia Fahs then goes on to name “a few fundamental guiding principles” which guided her choice of the stories in this book. These principles are listed below, with titles that I have added. (I should also note that Ms. Fahs wrote in the days of gender-specific language, but she was progressive and would have wanted to use de-genderized language today; I have removed gender bias in the passages from her introduction below; and you may wish to alter gender-specific language when you read her stories to child.) Here are Ms. Fahs’s guiding principles, with my comments:

Developmentally appropriate: “First, we have chosen stories having the kind of narrative that, in our judgment, children from seven to nine will enjoy. We realize, of course, that children much older will like these stories equally well, yet we have excluded from this book all stories that we regard as beyond the understanding and experiences of this younger group.”

That children still like these stories has been proved in my experience. I’ve used these stories a number of times while teaching Sunday school classes from 2009 to the present, and I can assure you that children are still fascinated by these old stories.

Relevant to children’s lives: “We decided also that the stories chosen should be more than interesting. In some pertinent manner, they should bear on the child’s own living. The child’s own experiences and those told about the long ago should be like two opposite currents of electricity. They should be different enough to attract each other, and yet fundamentally they should be so much alike that when they are brought near together a spark is born that unites the two into one common experience.”

The stories that I have put into this curriculum cover things that children face in their daily lives, including family fights, death, friendship, charity towards others, etc. I have found that children often find it to be deeply satisfying to talk about the underlying topic of the story, if we adults can prompt them to do so.

Cultural variety: “Another important principle has been to choose stories from a wide variety of different cultures, races, and religions so that early in life children may begin to feel some of the human universals that bind us together in a common world community. Our finest moral and spiritual ideals have been shared by many peoples.”

In this curriculum, I have only included stories from India and China, but these complement stories from other cultures the children hear in other curriculums.

Imperfection and tragedy are included: “The emphasizing of ideals, however, has not led us to discard stories merely because they picture life’s tragedies and evils. None of the people described in these stories should be presented as perfect. Children should know at an early age that all humans are imperfect. Learning from the past should mean learning from humanity’s mistakes as well as from humanity’s achievements.”

This aspect of the stories provides additional fodder for discussion. Children like to understand how the characters in the stories make mistakes, and gradually they learn to apply this understanding to their own mistakes.

Only naturalistic stories included, no supernatural stories: “We have intentionally excluded from this collection stories telling of divine, miraculous interventions in the affairs of human beings, involving the setting aside of known laws of the natural world. This principle has led to the exclusion of myths of gods and goddesses. It has also led to the omission of many stories from the bibles of Jews and Christians, commonly told to young children of the West, as well as similar stories found in the scriptures of other religions….

“We have made three exceptions in the application of this principle regarding miracle stories, for we have included the stories of the miraculous births of Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius. This has been done because it seems to be practically impossible to keep young children from hearing the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus during the Christmas season….

“With the three stories side by side, it is hoped that children may be given a broader understanding which will enable them to think for themselves. This should be possible, at least for those children who have already been told some of the scientific facts regarding the birth of babies. We hope that the result will not be merely a negative disbelief; that it may rather be a new appreciation of the significance to humankind of a truly great person and a realization that all people everywhere feel touched by the unutterable mystery when in the presence of a newborn baby.”

In short, the theology underlying these stories is what we call religious naturalism. Paul Albertus and I found ourselves asking children whether or not the stories were really true, or made up. When the children thought the stories were made up, we asked them if they thought the stories might possibly have been partly true and partly made up — that is, might there have been a kernel of historical fact around which the story was built? For the stories that were obviously not true (like the miracle birth stories), we talked about how the story might still have something true about it (e.g., that babies are so amazing that we like to tell stories about how amazing they are). We found that children in this age group, with a little help from adults, could readily sift through various levels of truth in a story, and start to appreciate how a story could be made up, but still contain deep truths.

Fables and fanciful tales are included: “This collection does contain a number of fanciful tales. Some have a generous touch of humor in them. But these are, for the most part, fables, such as the Jataka stories from India. In these stories children can recognize the fancifulness and will not mistake it for fact. The help given in these stories by one animal to another is seldom the magical help of a fairy, but rather the kind of help that one human being may give to another.”

We found that the inclusion of fanciful tales helped the children sort through levels of truth that are contained in a story. When they realize that a fanciful story can also be a story that is meaningful to them, and can contain deep truths, they have made great strides towards internalizing one of the most important characteristics of a religious liberal.

The above remarks will serve to introduce the stories, and how you might wish to use them with children. Now I hope you enjoy telling these stories to real, live children as much as I have!

— Dan Harper

About the lesson plans

Each session has a complete lesson plan for one story in the book. Most of the lesson plans have children act out the story, and then have a conversation about the story. Acting out the story reaches children with all kinds of learning styles, including children who can’t sit still. Once the group learns how to go about acting out stories, I have found that acting out the story helps them remember and retain the story, and to talk with their parents about the story. This idea of acting out stories from From Long Ago and Many Lands was extensively field tested in our Sunday school, primarily by Paul Albertus and myself, with extensive help from Edie Keating, Lucy Filppu, Carol Steinfeld, and others.

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. I strongly recommend that you work through the inevitable difficulties of teaching the children this new skill — it may be difficult the first week, but by the third week, our experience has been that the children learn to love acting out the story, and will even ask you if they can act it out, if you suggest another activity.

This curriculum was designed with the idea that it would be used with children in grade 2 and 3, that is, children aged 7 through 9 years old. When teaching mixed-age groups of children, it is wise to aim your teaching at the oldest or most mature or smartest children; if they get bored, you will lose them. The younger or less mature 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, you could ask them to read the story now and then.

Religious literacy and world religions

Another central theme for this course, as for many of the courses in our Sunday school, is to increase religious literacy. As you teach this course, you may find that you wish to increase your own religious literacy, specifically about Chinese religious traditionas, and Buddhist religious traditions — the focus of the stories used in this curriculum. Here are suggestions for three books you may wish to look at:

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. You will find a chapter on religions of Asia, as well as a chapter on Buddhism. You may find material that could be used to supplement some of the class sessions. This is an expensive book, so look for it in your library.

For a short introduction to Buddhism, try Buddhism: a short history, by Edward Conze (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000). This is a good, accurate, readable introduction to the Buddhist tradition.

If you want to learn more about Confucius, a good short introduction is Confucius: his life and thought, by Shigeki Kaizuka (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2002.)