I attended the All Saints Company's Christmas Pageant 101 Workshop given at St. Paul's Church in Oakland on October 15, 2011. The announcement about the workshop indicated that it was designed for lay and ordained people who wanted to explore and learn new ways of doing Christmas Pageants. It welcomed everyone to participate and charged a nominal $15 fee for the workshop.
There were twelve workshop participants. These twelve participants included five members of the All Saints Company (the "teachers") and seven others --five lay and two ordained. We met in the sanctuary and the outdoor courtyard of the church for a little over five hours. For the discussion portions of the workshop, we were seated in the front two pews, with a semi-circle of chairs facing us--attempting to get into a circle. When we were not in the discussion circle, we moved around the sanctuary.
The workshop was broken into four sections
1) Gather and Share, 2) Pageant Improvisation, 3) Exploring Pageant Scripts, and 4) Logistics. The beginning of each section was marked by a call to the circle with a hymn or song. In each case, the song was not announced, but simply led, so that everyone participated and was gathered by the song for the opening of the next section.
In the opening "Gather and Share" section we identified ourselves and talked some about our experiences in working on or participating (as a child or as an adult) in Christmas Pageants. In this sharing, we identified areas of pain and anxiety and areas of joy and anticipation around this seasonal liturgy.
In the Pageant Improvisation section, we spent a few minutes writing stage directions for the action around a short Bible passage and then the rest of an hour improvising a Christmas Pageant. Without script or formal stage direction, we made quick group decisions about who the characters would be and where the major scenes would take place (locations in the Sanctuary). We improvised lines and actions allowing the emotions of the characters/actors and the story itself dictate what happened next.
After a short debrief of our improvisation, we collected a sandwich lunch and worked while we ate, exploring three Christmas Pageant scripts in small groups--two brought by workshop participants and a third provided by the All Saints' Company. Immediately after lunch, we broke into pairs and wrote scripts for short scenes that were then acted out by other pairs so that we could critique the writing and acting.
In the final section, we were given resource materials to help a new liturgy director (or planner) manage the cast, rehearsals, do actor warm-ups and manage the complexities of scheduling rehearsals and liturgies around the holiday season. This section included demonstrations of physical and vocal warm-up exercises and simple costume demonstrations.
Insight One: The workshop modeled "learner-centered" Christian Education demonstrating the potential for learner-centered education in a congregation that undertakes a Christmas Pageant.
In both the pedagogy and the content, the learners were the subjects. Perhaps the first signal of this absolute commitment to learner-centered education was that when I wrote to the President of All Saints asking if I could observe the workshop, he said, "Yes, but only if you will be a full participant observer." While initially I thought that he made this request for the comfort of the other participants, it became clear that this was fundamental to his pedagogy--everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach in this workshop.
Notable was that of the twelve workshop participants, five were nominally "staff" of All Saints Company. But at each section, the staff members who were not leading were participating fully, contributing in every way as learners to the content of the section. The staff self-introduced at the outset of the workshop in exactly the same format as other participants--no one was asked what Church they came from, or whether they were lay or ordained, or whether they were associated with All Saints, instead they were asked to tell about a pageant they had participated in and then to name their dreams or their challenges for this year's Pageant. One of the All Saints staff who participated in this group storytelling cried when she told the workshop about how it felt when one Christmas her cast went out into a darkened sanctuary and she faced the fear that it would be a disaster because they weren't well enough prepared. In the improvisation section of the workshop, one of the "staff" participants carried and nursed her infant as she played Mary with Jesus. In this powerful part of the workshop she expressed the real emotions of playing (being) the teenager who was called to bear God's child.
The workshop participants were a group of mixed ages and had varying levels of experience putting on Christmas Pageants. They were from racially and (likely) from socially diverse backgrounds. They were straight and gay and represented a wide range of liturgical traditions. One of the participants came from a shared United Church of Christ/Episcopal church where the Christmas Pageant would be a joint liturgy. Because the content of the workshop was generated by the participants, it was by its nature a multi-cultural experience for everyone who participated. In one brainstorming exercise, participants identified the different purposes of the Pageant. Reviewing that list, we experienced the different expectations and cultural assumptions that participants in any Christmas Pageant would bring to that liturgy. The list included: "Giving the children a voice in community" and "role reversal/children in power", but it also included "honoring tradition", "bringing new people into the community", and "creating a work of art/beauty." Without judgment, the leader of this section allowed that each participant could reflect on their community's primary objectives and make Pageant choices to meet those objectives.
This workshop exercise made it clear that no one should assume that everyone in a congregation would have the same assumptions about what the Pageant was for. Another example of the multi-cultural learning--in the improvisatory Pageant, the participant who played Mary was not shy and submissive, but was instead impatient. She accepted Gabriel's announcement about her pregnancy with euphoria and relief. This interpretation expressed a cultural perspective of a Hispanic or other blue-collar teen--one less concerned about the stigma of pregnancy and more focused on her impatience at waiting to be married and have kids.
Because the workshop was learner-centered, the workshop provided not only new information for participants, but it also an opportunity for healing. In the opening storytelling, several participants expressed their shame about a childhood pageant experience, or their trauma about being or not being in a "lead role" in the pageant. One participant told how she had never volunteered to be an angel because she was sure that there wouldn't be a costume big enough for her and she'd be embarrassed. By having the workshop participants put on a Pageant in the course of the workshop, the participants had a new experience which could begin to heal their past traumas. It helped all participants feel the hurts that others might experience or have experienced in this complex liturgy and focused them on the hope that this year's Pageant could engage the mystery of the nativity and offer the hope of new birth and healing to the participants in the liturgy.
Finally because the workshop was structured around supporting the learning needs of the participants, it also encouraged action. In the final "logistics" section, the section leader distributed tools like schedules and parent letters. We tried out different stage direction techniques, and practiced script writing. With the sense of the gifts that all of us brought to the Pageant, and the practical tools for creating one in our hands, even I (who had no intention of doing a Pageant), found myself imaging one for my Parish.
Insight Two: Exploring multiple learning modalities and recognizing the gifts of all participants models a new way of being Church.
Another insight about the workshop was that by using a wide range of learning modalities, it allowed everyone in the workshop to bring multiple ways of learning and experiencing their faith to workshop.  This was a pedagogical decision that reflected the content of the workshop. In the opening brainstorm about why do a Pageant, participants contributed the idea that this experiential Gospel allowed people to bring more of themselves to a liturgy of the Word. This hope, that participants in a Pageant liturgy could bring more of themselves to church, was explored through the pedagogy of having workshop participants bring more of themselves to the workshop.
Singing as a learning modality was both used as a gathering tool at the beginning of each section and at other moments to demonstrate possible liturgical bridges. One of the workshop participants was a former music director and he remarked that he learned some new hymns in this workshop. His singing gift was also employed in a difficult hymn in which he was asked to lead. Other songs were led by amateur singers--one experience was remarkable in that the tune for the song changed in each verse. But no one even remarked on this "failure" in the workshop--the point was not the tune, but rather the experience of singing words that expressed a unity and joyfulness about our experience of God. The leader of the workshop noted at the end that singing as a gathering tool created a very different atmosphere and receptiveness to learning than a clapping hands or a call to order. Instead of disciplining the participants to prepare them to learn, the song invited participants to join in.
Movement was used throughout the workshop--participants tried out script directions they had written, they moved in the course of the improvised Pageant, they were encouraged to explore the emotional content of various passages by acting them out in the corner, in the pew, on the floor, in the pulpit. There was a professional dancer in the workshop, but there were also two participants who were overweight--all of the movement parts of the workshop were geared so that everyone could participate. They professional dancer's gifts did not get lifted up as "better" or more beautiful than any of the other participants offerings.
For the workshop participants who were comfortable in verbal reflection, there were opportunities to comment on the experience of the script writing, stage direction and improvised Pageant experiences. The leaders of these reflections encouraged both theological and practical reflections. For example, after the improvised Pageant, participants talked about the wonder that they experienced about God. Reflecting on a participant written scene for Mary and Elizabeth, two men (who had acted this scene) discussed what it felt like to be the "improbable mother" of God. But for those participants who were not comfortable with verbal reflection, there was no pressure and no sense that they were "lesser" participants because they didn't speak up.
Likewise, the workshop was structured so that some participants brought fully written out scripts for discussion, others did short written scripts in the workshop. All of the written exercises were done in pairs so that if anyone could not read or write, they were not in any way excluded from the learning.
The workshop provided the participants with an experience of being valued and welcomed. It invited participants to engage with Scripture with their whole beings--their minds, their emotions, their imaginations, their hurts and their creative gifts. Over the course of the workshop, the participants created an experience of loving, caring, healing and honoring one another. Using the deep tradition of our nativity story, the workshop encourage participants to hold together this particular experience in the workshop with a hope that a future Christmas Pageant liturgy would give all who participate in it a deeply meaningful experience.
In the Episcopal tradition, we understand that through the liturgies of the Word and Sacraments, we have opportunities to experience God. This workshop clearly focused on giving us resources to develop a Christmas Pageant liturgy that would allow all participants to have that experience. The workshop touched some of the core principles of my humanity and allowed me to see the Christ in my fellow participants--a truly remarkable experience.
 This insight is a practical example of Parker J. Palmer academic work on a "spirituality of education" which looks at how learner centered education experiences can explore truths that cannot be explored in more traditional hierarchical teaching methods. See, Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, 1st HarperCollins pbk, ed. (New York: HarperOne, 1993).
 This insight builds on the academic work of Linda L. Grenz who explains that a multiple intelligences approach to learning "is calculated to take advantage of our student’s God-given thirst for multi-modal learning." Linda L. Grenz, Transforming Disciples (New York: Church Pub Inc, 2008), 96.