From Many Lands

From Many Lands: Lesson plans for the book From Long Ago and Many Lands
A curriculum for middle elementary grades by Dan Harper, v. 0.5 (field test)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dan Harper


Goals and Objectives
About the lesson plans

PART ONE (eight complete session plans and stories)


Session 1: Spider and Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire — session plan and story
Session 2: Planting a Pear tree — session plan and story
Session 3: The Yellow Emperor — session plan and story
Session 4: The Little Tree Spirit — session plan and story
Session 5: The Pool of Enchantment — session plan and story
Session 6: The Raja’s Son — session plan and story
Session 7: The Red-Cedar Sculpture of the Woman Who Died (story, no session plan yet)
Session 8: The Accursed Lake — session plan and story

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 nine stories with lesson plans, designed to introduce children in grades 2-4 to some interesting myths and narratives from various religious traditions from around the world. The stories were chosen with several criteria in mind:

(1) The stories should be interesting for middle elementary children. We want children to have fun and enjoy the stories used in this curriculum.

(2) The stories should be in some way relevant to the ordinary lives of the children hearing them. Sometimes the relevancy will come through interesting ethical or moral dilemmas posed by the stories. Sometimes, some children will recognize these stories as being from their cultural or ethnic tradition. Sometimes the relevancy will come because these are good stories with interesting plot twists and sympathetic characters. Some of the stories touch on big topics that some children are already thinking about, like selfishness, cooperation, gender identity, death, friendship, etc. I have found that children often find it to be deeply satisfying to talk about such big topics of the story, if we adults can create a setting for them to do so.

(3) The stories come from a range of religious traditions, and from different regional traditions within those religious traditions; and the stories come from different places. There is a Buddhist story that originated in India; a Sikh story; a story from the Kongo religious tradition of West Central Africa; a Hindu story; stories from two different North American Indian nations; two Daoist stories from East Asia; and a story of Rabbinic Judaism from Eastern Europe.

(4) The stories feature many characters who are far from perfect. There are many human characters and other mortal characters, and even deities who are imperfect. Children like to understand how the characters in the stories make mistakes, and gradually they learn to apply this understanding to their own mistakes.

The basic underlying theology throughout may be called religious naturalism. While there are indeed magical and supernatural aspects, these stories are less magical and supernatural than many fairy tales (or most Disney and Hollywood movies). And when there are supernatural elements, the lesson plans often prompt you, the teacher, to help the children question those supernatural elements.

With an earlier version of this curriculum, fellow Sunday school teacher Paul Albertus and I found ourselves asking children whether or not the stories we told 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, we talked about how the story might still have something true about it, some message or meaning that was true even if the story itself wasn’t based on fact. 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.

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 has been extensively field tested in our Sunday school, by many teachers including Paul Albertus and myself, Greg Becker, Edie Keating, Carol Steinfeld, and many others.

You do not have to use the lesson plan that is provided, if you have another idea for 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 (and perhaps learning some new teaching skills yourself) — 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. Many of the lesson plans have brief descriptions of the world religion featured in that lesson plan, with links to Web sites that provide reliable information.

Please remember that it is difficult to find accurate information about world religions online. Too much of the information found online is biased or incomplete or just plain incorrect. But here are two good, reliable sources of general information about world religions:

The best online source for information about world religions (as of this writing, December, 2019) is Harvard University’s Pluralism Project.

An excellent printed reference book on world religions is Introduction to World Religions, edited by Christopher Partridge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, various editions from 2005 on). Designed as a textbook for introductory college courses, this book is filled with information and illustrations on many different religions. 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, or look for outdated editions sold inexpensively at Powell’s Used Books.