Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review: Betty Lukens Through the Bible in Felt

For many years, Baptist and Evangelical Sunday schools have been using Betty Lukens felt figures as a simple, vivid, and attractive way to teach Bible stories to children. There being nothing inherently Protestant about feltboards, it's high time more Catholic parents (and maybe some CCD teachers) knew about these gorgeous, detailed, high-quality felt pieces.

There are a LOT of them: more than 600 pieces, including just about every character, major and minor, from the Bible (though of course some figures stand in for multiple persons); enough animals to sink Noah's Ark; and every biblical object imaginable, from plain rocks (large for sitting on; small for stoning people with) to the fantastic multi-materialed statue from the king's vision in the second chapter of Daniel.

The set comes with a Teacher's Manual, which tells each story in an elementary-level style, 182 stories in all. Each 1-2 page story is accompanied by two panels showing the feltboard at different points in the narrative, a numerical list of felt pieces needed to tell the story (the pieces are all numbered, though not always very clearly, and indexed in the back of the Manual--I recommend photocopying the numbered index and keeping it with your pieces), the scriptural references for the story, and a "memory verse" relating to the story. The Teacher's Manual makes using the massive set surprisingly uncomplicated.

Two caveats. First, this is not a cheap set: $80 for the basic, unmounted, small-size set; scenery backgrounds, feltboard, and filing case not included (though you can probably get a discount ordering through a homeschool catalog). A whopping $340 for the large, mounted set with backgrounds, feltboard, and filing case.

But. Did I mention you get 600+ ultra-nifty, high-quality felt pieces? The additional scenery backgrounds (you get the basic outdoors background with the basic set) are cool, but probably not necessary: my children have been perfectly happy to let their imaginations fill in the backgrounds. The feltboard is even less necessary: buy $2 worth of light-blue felt at the craft store, glue it to a large (roughly 20" x 26") board, and you have a perfectly serviceable feltboard. Go wild and make the reverse side dark blue for nighttime or Creatio ex Nihilo scenes. The smaller sized set is preferable unless you're teaching a large class of a dozen or so students. And the filing case, by all accounts, is more a time-consuming liability than an asset: zip-loc freezer bags, labeled "Animals 123-150" or "Buildings 200-210" and stuffed in a small cardboard box, make an ideal filing system.

Second, you have to cut out the felt pieces yourself. And after you've cut out all the pieces you've assembled for the first few Bible stories, you'll start wondering if you've committed to felt-cutting as your new lifetime hobby. But soon you start re-using pieces, and it will only take a few minutes to cut out new pieces for the next story.

Being a Protestant resource, there are the expected blips: no Deuterocanonical stories are included (though with so many, many pieces in the set, nothing is easier than to pull together the right pieces for, say, Tobit, Raphael, the miraculous fish, and even the dog). The stories as told in the Teacher's Manual include a brief and gentle moral at the end, which often benefit from some tweaking: I cross out the repetitive appeals to know God's plan for your life and replace them with reminders to form and follow your conscience, for instance. The only serious theological problem I've run across is in the story of the Second Coming, which combines an Evangelical "Rapture" theology with the heresy that only the saved will be resurrected. Catholics will have to skip, or radically re-tell, this lesson.

The best thing about Betty Lukens is that kids love the feltboard, and remember the stories. The myriad biblical characters suddenly have faces to go with the names; the bright colors give the stories a Technicolor-quality that makes me think of old Hollywood robes-n-sandals epics like The Ten Commandments. When I'm cutting out felt pieces in public while waiting for appointments, someone raised Baptist will always come over and tell me how much she loved the felt Bible stories of her childhood.

Finally, I discovered some unexpected bonuses. Older children find it fun and easy to enact non-Biblical classic stories with the pieces: Paul and Priscilla might as well be Philemon and Baucis; they're all in robes and togas after all. And while you really can't let small children go wild with the felt pieces, unless you're prepared to invest a few hours of your evening in re-sorting them while you ruin your eyes trying to make out the tiny numbers printed on the felt, you can certainly let them play with the pieces from a story after it's finished. The Peaceable Kingdom, once Mommy's done, goes wild and the bears eat the sheep while Adam and Eve have a Pythonesque fish-slapping fight. The pillar of cloud over Mount Sinai becomes a volcanic eruption--run, Israelites! Don't trip over that golden calf!

All right, maybe something's just weird about my children.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the info. I was raised with these Biblical felt board stories. I remember looking forward to church just so I could hear a new one. My church at the time was not Catholic. Now that I am Catholic, I want to use the tools that excited me as a child for my daughter but, stay true to my Church. So I decided to see what people had to say. Thank you for your I input.

8:33 PM  

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